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A pathway from early trauma to eating disorders

Written by Dr. Danielle Keenan-Miller

Psychologists have long known that early traumatic experiences increase the risk of developing an eating disorder later in life. For example, people who were sexually abused as children are more likely to show signs and symptoms of eating disorders in young adulthood (1). Other studies following people from childhood into early adolescence have found that other kinds of childhood maltreatment, particularly problematic parenting behaviors by fathers, predict the development of eating and body image problems (2).

Although psychologists have long known about this association, we haven’t always understood why these things are connected; that is, how does having certain kinds of traumatic early experiences lead to eating disorders later in life?  Understanding why there is a connection between early trauma and later eating disorders is important, because it suggests ways that individuals, parents, and therapists can intervene. Obviously, prevention of childhood trauma is ideal, but it’s not always possible. For people who had a traumatic experience as a child, understanding these pathways can be a way to limit the negative effects of those early experiences.

A new study (3) looks at one pathway that might explain this connection. The authors found preliminary evidence that negative experiences in childhood led people to be more vulnerable to cultural messages around ideal body types (thin for women, muscularity for men) and to engage in more frequent comparisons between their own body and the bodies of others. Belief in these messages around body shape and frequent comparisons were, unsurprisingly, related to more negative feelings about one’s own body, which then predicted more disordered eating and exercise behaviors.

The takeaway from this study is that people with traumatic experiences in childhood might need extra help to clarify their own self-concept and develop a healthy identity that isn’t subject to strict cultural norms around body shape and size. Parents, peers, and psychologists can all play an important role in helping those positive changes come about.

  1. Smolak, L., & Murnen, S.K. (2002). A meta-analytic examination of the relationship between child sexual abuse and eating disorders. International Journal of Eating disorders, 31, 136-150. Doi: 10.1002./eat.10008
  2. Johnson, J.G., Cohen, P., Kasen, S., & Brook, J.S. (2002). Childhood adversities associated with risk for eating disorders or weight problems during adolescence or early adulthood. American Journal of Psychiatry, 159, 394-400.
  3. Vartanian, L.R., Hayward, L.E., Smyth, J.M., Paxton, S.J., & Touyz, S.W. (2018). Risk and resiliency factors related to body dissatisfaction and disordered eating: The identity disruption model. International Journal of Eating Disorders. Doi: 10.102/eat22835
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