Parents, personality, and eating disorder symptoms

There have been many studies on family dynamics and the development of eating disorders, but I think that this is the first that I’ve seen that takes the next step and makes connections with specific symptomology: The dynamic relationship of parental personality traits with the personality and psychopathology traits of anorectic and bulimic daughters

Before I go further, I want to make two disclaimers.  First, from the article:

…we cannot infer a casual relationship between the parents’ personality traits and the daughter’s personality or psychopathology.  Moreover, correlational analysis does not define a direction for these relationships.  Nevertheless, some of the parental personality traits were specific to eating-disordered daughters, suggesting that they may be relevant.

Second, I in no way believe that parents cause eating disorders (just want to make that clear before I get any attacking comments).  I do think that parental personalities are significant, though.  Not only do they affect your core beliefs but they also influence the relationships that you have with your parents… which affect all of your other relationships in life.

So, with that said, on to my commentary of the article!

The study used several scales (the Clinical Global Impression Scale, Beck Depression Inventory, Temperament and Character Inventory, and the Eating Disorders Inventory-2) to assess personality and ED symptomology in daughters and their parents.  Among these variables were BMI, overall functioning, disease duration, eating attitudes and severity of ED behaviors, depression, and temperament.  The Temperament and Character Inventory (TCI) was a large part of the study, and previous to this article I was largely unfamiliar with it, so I’ll briefly explain it at the end of the post.

In short, the personality of parents, personality of daughters, and ED symptoms were all analyzed.  Among the results, some of the more interesting were:

  1. In AN-R, father’s persistence predicted the daughter’s age of ED onset.
  2. Also in AN-R, novelty-seeking, body dissatisfaction, and interpersonal distrust were all affected by the father’s reward dependence.
  3. Mother’s self-directedness affected novelty-seeking in AN-P and BN.  The same was not true for AN-R.
  4. AN-P exhibited the most severe eating psychopathology.  These girls had the greatest body dissatisfaction, drive to thinness, and level of depression.
  5. Women with AN-R were less concerned about body shape than both AN-P and BN.
  6. The father plays a larger role in personality-based family dynamics of ED women (especially with AN-R).

There are a MANY more conclusions than just those in the study, but I could probably write a whole series on the findings.  I’m trying not to do that.  There are a couple more things that I want to mention, though.  First, the paper discusses the personality types of the ED-daughters.  If you are a family member and are feeling attacked by this point, you might want to read this section since it’s not very complimentary to those with EDs, either.  No one escapes the article feeling good:

Restricting Anorexics – stubborn, obsessive, self-determined
Purging Anorexics – impulsive, immature, disordered personalities
Bulimics – explorative, disorderly, conflicting
All EDs – frightened by potentially harmful stimuli, immature character, low self-acceptance, low resourcefulness, low self-esteem

Now, what’s the take-home message from all of this?  Well, I think that the article does a good job of explaining the role of family therapy in the treatment of eating disorders.  Specifically:

Counseling or family therapy may help modify specific aspects of the parent-daughter relationship to produce specific changes in eating symptoms.

relationship between parental psychopathology and child eating disorder symptoms

I like the point about helping the parents in family therapy.  To change your relationship and your home environment, you have to help your parents.  The things that you learn from them are reflections of both their own core values and their personality traits.  When they are struggling with their own anxiety, negative body image, etc,., that translates.  I think that when you (the person with the eating disorder) is in therapy and are being told things like it’s important to take care of yourself, you have to cut yourself some slack, what you think and how you feel matters, you don’t have to listen to the messages of society, etc., that it’s hard to believe these things and take them as truth when the people around you don’t.  Will my dad ever work on his anger issues?  Probably not.  Do I think it would help both him and I?  Sure.  Is my mom ever going to let go of her own disordered eating tendencies?  Unlikely.  Would her being healthy being a good influence on me?  Yes.

There is clearly a link between parental personality, the daughter’s personality, and ED symptoms.  I think that family therapy that helps the parents with their own issues then allows them to form healthier relationships with their daughters, which helps with her ED recovery.


The Temperament and Character Inventory (TCI)
Purpose: Instrument used for the dimensional assessment of personality, with four dimensions assessing temperament and three assessing character.


  1. Novelty seeking – level of exploratory activity
  2. Harm avoidance – efficacy of behavioral inhibition system
  3. Reward dependence – maintenance of rewarded behavior
  4. Persistence – ability to resist frustration


  1. Self-directedness – view self as autonomous and integrated
  2. Cooperativeness – view self as part of society
  3. Self-transcendence – how self is integral part of the universe

6 thoughts on “Parents, personality, and eating disorder symptoms

  1. Wow- this is very interesting. There is some research out there (don’t have it bookmarked on the laptop I’m using right now) that suggests that some of these personality traits are heritable, which would make both the parental links and the specific correlation to ED diagnosis rather clear. Both my parents are on the obsessive side and both are quite perfectionistic (although expressed rather differently in each parent!). That didn’t cause my eating disorder, but it also let many of my obsessive, perfectionistic traits get brushed under the carpet because they were quite normal in my family.

    Would you mind emailing me the pdf if you have it? carrie at edbites dot com


  2. I thought the article was fascinating — and I agree that adding in the biological predisposition toward certain personality traits further enhances the correlation with the ED.

    Several conclusions did reference the complexity of the various factors:

    “….the role of parental personality traits on the emergence of EDs involves very complex family dynamics that are not detectable by linear analysis. In the present study, parental personality features were not direct stressors for specific personality or psychopathological issues. Nevertheless, the results indicate that some of the daughters’ features (eg, novelty seeking) may have been directly influenced by parental personality traits (eg, mothers’ self-directedness). This is consistent with previous studies of disturbed children and borderline patients, and with the ‘goodness of fit’ theories that explain mother-child personal interactions.”

    Also interesting is that while only daughters without Asix I comorbidity were included in the study, parents with personality disorders were not excluded. Also interesting to note:

    “Although approximately 80% of parents with daughters affected by ED have anxiety or minor depressive symptoms, most declared taht these were reactive to their daughter’s condition.”

    Anyway, I’m sure you’d rather just read the article than have me quote the whole thing to you piece by piece 😉 I’m emailing you the PDF and would love to hear your thoughts!

  3. I’m fascinated as well, but I think I come at this stuff differently.

    Obviously, families will have clusterings of these traits genetically and this both complicates recovery and may possibly present opportunities to offer not just eating disorder recovery but also other benefits to a family to maximize their general happiness and relations.

    But what this stuff is generally used for is different. It is often used to point fingers, to go on witch hunts, to confuse correlation with cause, and to create problems where none may have existed. A given family may only have one person with these traits or many. A family may have these traits in a very functional and helpful way, or in damaging ways. A family can use this knowledge to grow, or to despair.

    So knowing this information about the population can be used for good or for ill, and it depends a lot what the clinicians and consumers are doing with it and why they want it. I would argue that this information about ourselves is important self-knowledge regardless of whether anyone in the family has a debilitating psychiatric disorder.

  4. imaginenamaste

    That is really interesting–I read an article about this in one of my research classes. I’m not totally sure that I believe all of it as things vary, but I could definitely see how it could relate to me–and others! I think about how often my ED groups have gotten to issues with parents and other family!

  5. […] Parents, personality, and eating disorder symptoms « Grey Thinking […]

  6. bek

    okay, now, wait, just to be clear. so the dad’s ability to resist frustration contributes to AN-R? interesting. and also his ability to maintain behavior that is rewarded? i can kinda see that. not totally sure. my dad and i were never close. he is passive and reserved to the extreme, as well as a very talented perfectionist. and a sex addict. so hmm.

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