Eating disorders usually accompany other mental illnesses and conditions, including anxiety, depression, or personality disorders. They may even be connected to physical conditions.
Traumatic experiences also can increase the risk of many mental disorders. So it’s no surprise that research has found connections between trauma and the development of eating disorders.
Patterns of childhood trauma and eating disorders
A new study found that patients with eating disorders had significantly higher scores for adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) compared with a nationally representative sample. ACEs not only include emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, but also distressing family experiences such as neglect, divorce, or the incarceration of a parent.
This research supports previous findings that childhood trauma is associated with eating disorders in adulthood. However, this study got even more specific.
The study authors compared subgroups of ACEs with different eating disorder diagnoses. They found that study participants diagnosed with binge eating disorder reported higher levels of ACEs than patients with the restricting subtype of anorexia. Those diagnosed with other specified feeding or eating disorder were more likely to have experienced high levels of household dysfunction than those with anorexia.
Based on their findings, the researchers recommend screening for adverse childhood experiences among patients with eating disorders. The study appeared in the Journal of Eating Disorders in May 2022.
One caveat: the vast majority of study participants were white females. Further research is needed to know whether these findings apply to other demographics.
Infants can experience disordered eating too
Disordered eating is often considered a problem among adolescents and adults. However, some eating disorders can affect infants.
Generally known as infantile anorexia (IA) or post-traumatic eating disorder (PTED), these conditions involve children up to age 3 years who refuse to eat enough and show a lack of interest in food. These conditions were first described in the 1980s, so there is still a lot we don’t know about them, but they also may be associated with traumatic experiences and dysfunctional family interactions.
The 2021 book Mindfulness and Eating Disorders Across the Lifespan, by Loredana Lucarelli, dedicates a chapter to IA and PTED. She notes that factors involved in these disorders may include the child’s temperament and emotional regulation, interactions between the mother and child, and maternal psychopathology.
Among children with PTED, parents may have high anxiety and be dysfunctional and controlling, which can lead to tension and conflict during mealtimes. This can create traumatic experiences that children may associate with eating, creating a fear of food.
A pilot study from 2017, described in Frontiers in Psychology, looked at interactions among mothers, fathers, and children with IA during feeding and play times. Families of children with IA had more trouble expressing and sharing more positive feelings. The children had little autonomy and showed more difficulty interacting with their parents.
Additional studies may help determine the best treatment options for children with these conditions. Further research could also learn if they affect the risk of eating disorders later in life.
Understanding the connections between childhood experiences and eating disorders may help behavioral health clinicians better address their clients’ needs and struggles. Thorough documentation and tracking client outcomes can guide treatment decisions to achieve better results.
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