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The Influence Of Family Functioning On Eating Disorders

2849 words - 11 pages

The Influence of Family Functioning on Eating Disorders

Understanding the etiology of an eating disorder is perhaps the most complicated issue surrounding the disease, as teasing apart cause and consequence can be extremely difficult. This problem becomes immediately apparent when examining family factors associated with eating disorders. Research over the past decade has focused largely on identifying family factors that potentially contribute to the development of an eating disorder in an individual, and further refining these characteristics into prototypes for the “anorexic family” or the “bulimic family.” Identifying a pattern of specific family risk factors would be an extremely useful tool in recognizing those vulnerable for developing an eating disorder. While the research has been unable to paint an entirely complete picture of family characteristics, certain traits surface as typical to the eating disordered family. Unfortunately, much of the existing literature on family factors and eating disorders relies upon correlational data, as controlled studies are difficult to conduct within a family setting. Caution must therefore be applied to such findings, as one cannot assume causality; based on strictly correlational studies alone, it cannot be determined whether the family environment caused the eating disorder, or whether the eating disorder led to family dysfunction. Nevertheless, it remains useful to examine any significant factors that emerge from the literature in order to increase understanding about each potential factor influencing the development of eating disorders.

Although they both fall into the common continuum of eating disorders, anorexia nervosa (restricting subtype) and bulimia nervosa have symptoms that are quite distinct. Anorexia is characterized by symptoms that include a refusal to maintain a normal weight, an intense fear of gaining weight, and body image disturbance. Conversely, bulimia is generally marked by the maintenance of a normal weight, engaging in recurrent episodes of binge eating that are often followed by purging or some other form of inappropriate compensatory behavior. These compensatory measures can include self-induced vomiting, laxative or diuretic use, or excessive exercise. Bulimics also tend place extreme importance on body shape and weight in self-evaluations (Walsh & Garner, 1997). Such differences in symptomology certainly warrant the prediction that, if indeed family influences play a role in the development of eating disorders, there will be discrepancies in family patterns among anorexics and bulimics. The literature indicates that this is, in fact, the case on measures of family climate, interaction, and characteristics. While it may be premature to claim the existence of an “anorexic family” or a “bulimic family,” there are some stable traits that consistently emerge, indicating a possibility of eventually identifying some specific...

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