What Mothers Say To Their Daughters About Weight Can Increase Eating Disorder Dangers

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Much has been made of the influence outside social pressures have in the development of eating disorders in young girls, but often researchers overlook one of the most driving forces of these types of pressures. A new study shows the way mothers speak to their daughters could be a large influence in determining a young girl’s future risk of eating disorders.

In the study, published in the journal Body Image, lead study author Erin E. Hillard, a developmental psychology doctoral student at the University of Notre Dame, worked with other students and faculty to analyze the effects of a mother’s diet encouragement on their daughter’s body image. The team worked with sixth grade girls and their mothers, and followed up with the girls when they were in eighth grade.

“Mothers’ influence on their daughters is important for understanding girls’ disordered eating and body dissatisfaction,” Hillard and her co-authors explained in the study’s abstract. “Direct maternal encouragement of daughters to lose weight is linked to daughters’ development of bulimic symptoms, and additional findings indicate that daughters whose mothers merely talk about dieting and body dissatisfaction are more likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder.”

According to the findings, the outcomes for mothers encouraging weight loss were significantly worse if the mothers were not also discussing their own weight concerns. When the focus is primarily on the daughter’s weight, the daughters were also at increased risk for developing an eating disorder.

The findings are considered preliminary until further research can be done, but Hillard says she mainly wanted to explore the best ways for mothers to speak about weight with their daughters. She also concedes this is a complex issue that is only beginning to be examined.

Still she says the findings “shed light on the complexity of the issue of talking to children about their weight in ways that don’t lead to poor health outcomes in the long run.”

If you think you or someone you know is living with an eating disorder, please call (888) 298-4673. We can answer any questions you have and see if treatment is the right path for you or your loved one.

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