Mothers, Daughters and Eating Disorders

A series of articles dedicated to nurturance

How do a mother’s own attitudes toward herself get passed to her children? Girls naturally identify with their mothers and this identification can become disturbed when a mother acts in ways that are destructive and lack self respect. When the issue is specific to food and eating, a mother can and does lead by example. Food is a powerful symbol of nourishment, so attitudes, behaviors and feelings associated with food often hold a much deeper, even unconscious meaning. A mother’s ideas about “good foods” and “bad foods” or a focus on her own dieting will most likely influence a child’s perceptions about food than one would even imagine or come to know until the attitudes get acted out as an eating disorder. Attitudes about eating can also express an unconscious wish, for instance, a mother who wants her daughter to eat only “good food” may send the message that eating only “good” food makes her good in her mother’s eyes. The daughter may later incorporate this attitude as her own. Mostly, we hear that the media is a powerful force in this arena, sending messages about how women should look and act, I would argue that the strongest model in a girls life is her maternal figure and the messages are transmitted more powerfully on this level.

A mother who has an eating disorder herself may pass her anxiety on to her child even if she resists instructing her child on what to eat or how to look. Also, a mother who thinks she is hiding her own struggles with an eating disorder from her daughter is missing the imperative truth that her daughter is hyper vigilant and aware of her every move. It is inherent in the mother daughter relationship. Regardless of the efforts to shield the child from negative messages and destructive behaviors, the daughter will most indefinitely pick up on her mother’s critical attitude toward herself and her anxiety and resistance toward food and eating.

What if a mother does not have an eating disorder and is on the low end of the spectrum of critical thoughts regarding food and weight? Do their daughters develop eating disorders, too? Yes, the susceptibility a young woman has to develop an eating disorder is complex and includes not only direct inferences regarding food and weight, but also emotional attunement, acknowledgement as a person, and the process of developing a sense of self separate from others.
Mother & Daughter Reunions: the holidays

Because the holidays are approaching and many readers are expecting to see their daughters for the holidays, I thought it would be important to address what happens when your daughter comes home and her weight has changed. How do you respond in a way that expresses concern, free of criticism, judgment and without your own wish for your daughter to look a certain way?

It is essential to acknowledge how your daughter must be feeling about herself that she would engage in behaviors that put her health at risk. I would encourage mothers to refrain from talking or commenting on numbers; any number, be it current weight, weight gain, weight loss, size, or calories. Focusing on numbers minimizes the process of the eating disorder and how destructive it is and how alarmed you are that your daughter is in trouble. Taking a curious and compassionate approach about what is happening internally with your daughter, rather than what you see externally, will validate her emotional experience, not her eating behavior. Finding her the most appropriate help for her situation is extremely important regardless of her or your own resistance in seeing the feeding behavior as disturbed and life threatening.

I do take a very serious and steadfast approach in intervening when a person shows signs of an eating disorder because I interpret the behavioral process of an eating disorder as communication: the use of the body rather than words to express what is going on with a person. Engaging in a therapeutic relationship where words become the mode of communication aids in healing the behavioral destruction of eating disorders and assists a person in being able to identify and express her emotional life.

Again, eating disorders are complex emotional, psychological, physical and cognitive processes that are personal to each person. Understanding the intricacies of the mother and daughter relationship and how it effects growth and development can be helpful in the prevention and healing of an eating disorder.

Author's Bio: 

Angela R. Wurtzel, MA, MFT, is a certified eating disorder specialist in private practice in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo, CA. She can be reached at (805) 884-9794 or Her website is