Facing Family Patterns: The Truth Behind Eating Disorders This Emotional Life - PBS

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Eating disorders / Blog

 Gregg  Jantz Ph.D. CDP

Gregg Jantz Ph.D. CDP's Bio

Dr. Jantz is an expert on eating disorders.

Facing Family Patterns: The Truth Behind Eating Disorders


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Carl cringed, hearing the raised voices through the front door as he approached the house. Heart sinking, he opened the door and stepped into the battle zone known as Home. His father and older brother were in the midst of another fight, yelling at each other at the top of their lungs.

His mother was nowhere to be seen, probably hiding out in the kitchen.

Sure enough, there was Mom in the kitchen, furiously stirring up a peace offering. As if the smell of a freshly baked cake could chase all the ugliness in the house away.

The more his brother and father fought, the more his mother cooked.

In the den, the fight was reaching a crescendo. They heard the front door slam and Dad yell loudly. Carl and his mother looked at each other, waiting. They were putting dinner on the table when his father burst into the kitchen and shouted, “Let’s eat!” Carl knew his father would eat quickly and then disappear into his study for the rest of the evening. Carl would stay in the kitchen with his mother, having a second, sometimes even a third, helping.

It was safe in the kitchen. It was warm in the kitchen. And there was always the cake.

Unlike his brother who routinely expressed his frustrations openly, Carl held it in. Like a sponge, he absorbed and retained the family’s dysfunction, as do so many people who develop eating disorders. In an explosive household where the kitchen felt like his only safehaven, Carl came to associate food with love – compulsive overeating his only means of stuffing down and “controlling” his pain.

As I shared in my last blog post, Eating Disorders: The Path to Whole Person Healing, the key to an eating disorder lies in relationships, usually within the family. As outlined in my book, Hope, Help and Healing for Eating Disorders, the following characteristics are modified from the Family System Continuum, devised by Wayne Kritsberg, author of The Adult Children of Alcoholics Syndrome.

Family patterns that commonly produce children with eating disorders include:

  1. Rigid rules often contradicting each other or applied inconsistently
  2. Rigid roles within the family, wherein each member is defined in a hierarchal structure, with those in power defining the roles of those beneath them
  3. Family secrets with negative consequences for “betraying the family”
  4. Resistance to outsiders entering the family unit so as keep family secrets and prevent outsiders from questioning the way the family system operates
  5. Lack of laughter or lightheartedness, a tone usually set by whichever member holds power within the family
  6. Lack of respect for personal boundaries, wherein respect for others is withheld from subservient family members
  7. Disproportionate connection to the family after leaving the family circle
  8. Resistance to change, avoiding introspection and self-examination
  9. Fragmentation, wherein each member has a distinct role that does not change or blend with the others


As with any pattern, this is one likely to be repeated from generation to generation. That is why it is so critical, if you do have children, to examine your own parenting style, especially your reaction to stress when you are most vulnerable to repeating negative family patterns.

Spend some time thinking about your own family’s patterns when you were a child.

Were there rigid rules and roles in your family? Were you expected to keep family secrets? Was there a lack of laughter and lightheartedness? A lack of respect for personal boundaries? Was there resistance to change? What role did food play in your home and the lives of your family? What were the predominant sources of conflict in your family and how may your reaction to this pain have contributed to your eating disorder?

AFFIRMING ACTION

Safe in the knowledge that I can understand and accept the past, and change my future, I choose to seek and face my truth.