Perfectionist fathers can reinforce tendencies toward eating disorders

April 26, 2006

University Park, Pa. -- Perfectionist fathers can reinforce disordered eating among college-age young people already preoccupied over their physical looks and subject to the demanding expectations of peers and media, according to a Penn State study.

A survey of 424 college students revealed that, with sons and daughters alike, the father, not the mother, is more likely to create pressures leading college-age children to indulge in erratic eating habits that in turn can lead to anorexia, bulimia and other clinical illnesses, says Michelle Miller-Day, associate professor of communication arts and sciences.

"Another finding was that food itself was not the issue with students who reported disordered eating behaviors," Miller-Day notes. "Personal perfectionism, reinforced by peer and parental expectations of perfection in combination with the allure of advertising, may cause many young people to feel that they are not in control of their own lives and bodies. Eating then becomes an area in which they do have a sense of personal control."

"These findings make clear that treatment for maladaptive eating must extend to a patient's relational network and not just focus on the individual patient," she adds. "A specific focus on the patient's history of communication with parents might provide insights into the development of negative eating behaviors. Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa have a very high mortality rate. The mortality rate associated with anorexia is 12 times higher than the death rate of other causes of death for females 15-24 years old."

Miller-Day and Jennifer D. Marks, a doctoral student at Penn State, presented their findings in the paper, "Perceptions of Parental Communication Orientation, Perfectionism and Disordered Eating Behaviors of Sons and Daughters," in the spring issue of the journal Health Communication.

In a survey of 424 college students, the Penn State researchers measured the relationship between self- and parentally-prescribed perfectionism and perceptions of personal control and maladaptive eating behavior. Their data revealed that 17 percent of the overall sample participated in maladaptive eating patterns including such behaviors as vomiting because of feeling uncomfortably full.

The Penn State study indicated that father-child communicative interaction marked by high paternal standards might increase young people's risk of unwholesome eating behaviors, in part, perhaps, by socializing the adolescent to be compliant with externally imposed messages of what is considered "ideal." In this way, adolescents may become more vulnerable to media and peer group portrayals of ideal body images.

"Our analysis also suggested that perceived loss of personal control might lead to negative eating patterns," say the researchers. "If an individual feels out of control of his or her life, focusing on food intake may be one of the few arenas where he or she can assert personal control. The more young people felt in control of their lives, particularly when positively reinforced by fathers, the less likely they were to engage in maladaptive eating behaviors."

Last Updated March 22, 2010