Parental Involvement and Childhood Eating Disorders

A new study out of Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont., examined the role that parental involvement plays in childhood eating disorder treatment and recovery. Results suggest that parents should become more involved with their child’s eating disorder treatment and identified a high occurrence of the “parental blame complex.”

The two-year study was conducted across seven sites in Canada where parents and caregivers were questioned about their level of involvement in their child’s eating disorder. Lead researcher and clinical psychologist Adèle LaFrance reports that the study of over 100 parents and caregivers suggested that many parents reported a fear of intervening in their child’s eating disorder, as they blame themselves for a child’s eating disorder. Lafrance went on to label this reported self-blame as the “self-blame complex.”

How the Self-Blame Complex Impacts Parental Involvement

Questionnaire results demonstrated a strong correlation between the level of parental involvement and the extent to which parents/caregivers blamed themselves for their child’s disorder. Results also suggested that parents harbor fear(s) of how they will handle the situation and whether or not they will make appropriate choices. This train of thought was proven counterproductive to the child’s suggest as self-blame will likely make it more challenging for a loved one or caregiver to support the child in a meaningful way.

Lead researcher LaFrance reports that if a parent is feeling as though they are in a place of self-blame, the best thing to do is ask for support and guidance. It is important to note that parents do not cause eating disorders and the practice of self-blame and fear from a parent will hurt the child’s recovery process. Eating Disorder Hope echoes this idea as they state in their article entitled Family Support…It’s Complicated: “Families are neither all “good” nor all “bad” and it’s important to avoid, and help our clients avoid such reductive categorization.”

The Value of Parental Involvement in Childhood Eating Disorders

Lafrance goes on to report that she would like to see her field move farther away from the notion that individuals are independent or adults at the age of 18. The research has suggested that regardless of whether a child is “16 or 46 there is such value in having their parents or their caregivers or their loved ones involved in the treatment process.”

LaFrance studied techniques of parent intervention on child eating disorder more thoroughly in a 2014 study titled “Emotion-Focused Family Therapy for Eating Disorder Across the Lifespan.” This study provided parents various strategies with respect to meal support and symptom interruption as well as emotion coaching. Parents were also supported to identify and work through their own emotional blocks (the aforementioned “complex”) that could interfere with their supportive efforts.

Analyses revealed a significant increase in parental self-efficacy, a positive shift in parents’ attitudes regarding their role as emotion coach and a reduction in the fears associated with their involvement in treatment, including a decrease in self-blame. This second study reinforced LaFrance’s view that quality parental intervention and support has the potential to improve client outcomes and quality of intervention.


Family Support… It’s Complicated