Like mother, like daughter: Eating disorders run in families

Get the latest from TODAY

Sign up for our newsletter
By Stacy Lu

Deborah Belfatto worried that her daughter might have an eating disorder when the 12-year-old eliminated all fat from her diet and started getting very thin.

But she didn’t act on her suspicions until an older family friend commented on her daughter's weight loss.

“The comment came from such an unlikely source that it gave me a jump-start into taking some real action,” Belfatto says.

A breast-cancer survivor, Belfatto considers herself someone who doesn’t shy away from hard truths. But she was not alone in her reluctance to confront her child’s anorexia. Many mothers resist acknowledging a child’s eating disorder, out of fear, guilt – and sometimes because they’re struggling with their own food issues.

Belfatto’s daughter fit the anorexic “profile,” in that she was a high achiever who rarely gave her parents cause to worry. Disordered eaters, particularly anorexics – who severely limit food intake -- tend to be very successful in other areas, and Lindsay was an outstanding student and competitive ice skater.

“These high achieving, outgoing, activity-oriented girls are very perfectionist and anxious, and our perception is they respond differently to dieting than other kids do. They actually find caloric restriction calms their anxiety,” says Cynthia Bulik, M.D., author of “The Woman in the Mirror: How to Stop Confusing What You Look Like with Who You Are.”

Like mother, like daughter: Seeing her child with an eating disorder may hit too close to home for some moms. Research shows disorders run in families; a relative of a person with an eating disorder is ten times more likely to have the illness than someone without a family history of disorders.

So a mom with an eating disorder or body image problem herself may be hesitant to act, not knowing herself what constitutes normal eating, Bulik says. “This is such a hot button issue for them, and they don’t want do convey any of that to their kids through these blind spots,” she says.

A mother with an ill child may feel she is somehow to blame, too.  “For too many years parents have been blamed for their child’s eating disorders. Mothers are always wondering if they shouldn’t have said their hips were too big,” says Lynn Grefe, president and CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association.

“Now, moms are getting self-conscious about what they’re allowed to say, and what they’re not. It’s become a tricky business,” she says.

Then there is the shame; shame of failing, somehow, to nourish a child. “And let’s face it, an eating disorder is a mental illness,” Belfatto says.  “Who wants to admit their child has a mental illness?”

Fear of confronting such a serious illness is a factor as well. Some studies suggest that as many as one in five anorexics die; treatment can take years and involves a family commitment.

“So many parents say, ‘I hope this is a phase. I hope it will just pass.’  But you have to go with your gut,” Bulik says. And the sooner treatment begins, the more likely that an eating disorder can be cured.

Kids can be very good about hiding signs, particularly from parents who are unsure of what to watch for.  Judy Avrin of Totowa, NJ, took her daughter Melissa to see a gastroenterologist when Melissa had digestive problems.  The doctor suspected an eating disorder, but Avrin, unaware of the warning signs, was sure he was wrong.

Later, she found bits of food Melissa had chewed and spit out hidden in a drawer.  “I realized then we had a problem,” she says.  Melissa died at age 19 of complications of bulimia, binge eating followed by purging using vomiting, laxatives or excessive exercise.

“I have to live every day with the knowledge that critical time was lost in getting her into treatment,” Avrin says on her blog. She has since devoted her life to spreading awareness, including making a documentary, Someday Melissa, about her daughter’s struggle.

If you suspect your child has a problem, it may help to discuss it with your doctor for helpful suggestions and a feeling of empowerment before approaching your child, Bulik suggests. There are also many advocacy groups that help families struggling with the issue.

“It can be such an isolating thing. So hearing from other parents and getting their support can make parents feel more confident about bringing the issue up with children,” she says. Two great places to get support: the National Eating Disorders Association Parent Toolkit and FEAST, a site for family members of someone dealing with the illness.