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January 2011



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Article Date: 10 Aug 2010 – 2:00 PDT

One underlying cause that surprises many women during treatment for an eating disorder is the relationship an adolescent girl has with her mother, according to Catherine Weigel Foy, a family therapist at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center, a leading eating disorder center.

Young girls suffering with eating disorders often think the physical aspects of their disease call for the most healing, but in most all instances, girls have to recognize the psychological and emotional damage caused by anorexia or bulimia, too. It’s during this process that they often uncover unexpected root causes of their disease.

“The mother-daughter relationship can be a complicated one. While relationships with friends and husbands begin in adolescence and adulthood, a mother’s love begins before a child is born, and can create an unrealistic expectation that the connection between mothers and daughters will be as strong and free from limitations in adulthood as it was in early infancy,” said Weigel Foy, LCSW, LMFT.

A clinical lecturer at Northwestern University, where she is affiliated with both the Family Institute and the Department of Psychology, Weigel Foy endorses an introspective look at this unique relationship and believes temporary distance from family members allows many adolescent and teenage girls to feel safe exploring the mother-daughter relationship in ways they haven’t been able to during prior treatment for anorexia or bulimia. Weigel Foy and her colleagues at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center work together to foster a nurturing environment that helps teen girls gain a realistic view of their relationship with their mothers. In turn, the girl and her mother are better equipped to support each other on their path to recovery.

Exploring relations with her mother in a residential setting also equips a young woman to place the relationship in a healthier social context. “In reality, an individual’s needs and fears are often informed by society’s needs and fears, making this one of the most maligned of all human relationships. By identifying societal myths commonly found in these relationships, mothers and daughters can begin to build a stronger foundation and one of recovery for those suffering from eating disorders and substance abuse,” said Weigel Foy, who also serves on the consulting editorial board for the Journal of Feminist Family Therapy.

Weigel Foy identifies several “perfect mother” myths that can create unrealistic standards for behavior that often strain the relationship and trigger feelings of shame:

— the measure of a perfect mother is a perfect daughter

— constant nurturing comes naturally to all mothers

— mothers are born knowing how to raise children

— mothers and good daughters don’t get angry

These ideas contribute to mother-blaming when mothers don’t match the myth and can create distance between mothers and daughters.

In the same way, there are “bad mother” myths that can lead mothers and daughters to feel like they are walking a tightrope where too much or too little love will push them over the edge. Damaging assumptions include:

— mothers are inferior to fathers as authority figures

— only experts know how to raise children

— mothers and daughters are bottomless pits of neediness

— mother-daughter closeness is unhealthy

— assertion of a woman’s power is dangerous or unseemly

The impact of beliefs like these can keep a teenage girl from seeking support from her mother when she needs it, or from accepting her mother’s efforts to build a normal, healthy bond that will help her through adolescence.

Relationship myths can be particularly perilous for young girls who are struggling with body image issues, says Weigel Foy. Given that a mother is often the first person to recognize signs and symptoms of an eating disorder, any reluctance to address her concerns in an open and honest way can impact her daughter’s chances of avoiding long term medical complications.

Through residential treatment and therapy this relationship can be explored and these young girls can come to better understand its affect on their diseases and in turn help build a foundation for lifelong recovery.

Source: Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center


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