Some eating disorder researchers claim that a high percentage of anorexic patients suffered from childhood sexual abuse. Some theorize that the childhood trauma creates a fear of growing up or instills a form of self-loathing. Many best-selling books mention the role of sexual abuse in the development of an eating disorder.
For a parent of with an anorexic child, these sort of theories are very disturbing. Because they have been so widely spread, the father of an anorexic child may feel like others now suspect him of abusing his own child. Certainly, this suspicion is high in the minds of many psychotherapists, who may be eager to speculate on the reasons for the disordered eating.
As a parent, it is important to understand that there is no proven link between childhood sexual trauma and anorexia. One can not be sure if the studies done to determine the prevalence of sexual abuse among anorexic individuals are reputable and accurate, since false memories of childhood sexual trauma can be induced by the leading questions asked by the therapist. Some of the memories may have been recovered through hypnosis, which is notoriously prone to suggestability.
Just a few years ago there was an epidemic of young people recalling repressed memories of sexual abuse. Many of these memories only surfaced after intensive psychotherapy, with therapists often employing hypnosis or leading questions. In a scenario very similar to the eating disorder epidemic, many best-selling books were written about the widespread incidence of sexual abuse. Some researchers and therapists publicly speculated that just about everyone has been sexually abused at one time or another. An industry sprang up in just a few short years, offering therapy for everything from depression to headaches, these of course being caused by the childhood trauma.
In many cases of these false memories of abuse, families were torn apart by false accusations. Fortunately, some more knowledgeable psychiatrists familiar with the phenomenon of suggestability and the pitfalls of hypnosis, recognized what was happening, and took steps to reign in many of these over-zealous therapists. How many of these therapists are now working in eating disorder programs is unknown.
If there truly is a higher incidence of childhood sexual abuse among anorexic patients than among the general population, this does not necessarily mean that sexual abuse causes anorexia. It is more likely that the characteristics of timidity, shyness, and submissiveness, (which are often genetic traits) commonly seen in anorexic indiviuals, will also make that individual vulnerable to the exploits of a sexual predator. A timid, submissive individual is more likely than a bold, brazen one to submit and remain passive to an aggressor. The same traits will also predispose that individual to developing food avoidance behavior if they experience abdominal distress due to eating. And, the same traits will also make the individual more prone to suggestability. (this may be why so many anorexic patients willingly accept the concept of the anorexic voice, as well as the many specualtive theories of some therapists).
If you are the father of an anorexic girl, you know that you have not abused your child. Be aware, however, that the therapist may highly suspect this. You may want to insist that any psychotherapy sessions with your child be videotaped or recorded, so as to identify any questionable practices. If you are able to observe from behind a one-way mirror or participate in the therapy, that may be even better.
What are your experiences with this subject? Contact us and let us know. Your insights will be invaluable!