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Ashley Solomon, Psy.D is a psychologist who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders, body image, trauma, and serious mental illness.

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Refrigerator moms and the evolution of parent-bashing

March 22, 2011 26 Comments by Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul

haha-dork-i-bet-your-dogs-name-is-ipod

{Natalie Dee Comics}

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a two-day training in Palo Alto (um, who can beat the location? really…) on Family-Based Treatment (FBT) for eating disorders, sometimes called the Maudsley Approach. The experience was incredibly rich and this will hopefully be only the first of many posts based on what I took away from it.

When I left California, I took with me a deeper understanding of how parents and caregivers can be helpful, or rather, vital, in the process of recovery.

You may be thinking, “Wow, that’s not rocket science. You don’t have to do an intensive training to figure that out.” But in fact for many of us, clinicians included, this is a new concept.

This is not to say that in my own practice I don’t incorporate family support and even do family therapy. But do I rely on the parents of the individual with the eating disorder to do the therapy? In a word, no.

Proponents of FBT would suggest that parents are, in fact, the best possible people to do the intense work of treatment. In short, this means that FBT teaches caregivers the skills they need to implement re-nourishment at home. Parents initially take control of restoring the individual’s weight, gradually turning over appropriate control to their child after a period of time.

If this seems foreign to you, you are not alone. The radical-ness of this idea is radical in part because our society has readily adopted the notion that parents are the root of all of our problems and thus cannot be the source of our solutions.

Putting aside the question of whether that’s a valid argument for a moment, here’s another question: How did we start blaming parents for, well, everything?

Looking back at nearly every public tragedy in history, we find questions about the parentage of the individual responsible. We want to know the background of Adolf Hitler, and from where his brutality might have stemmed. We wonder, who exactly did raise Bernie Madoff? An article in the Philadelphia Daily News recently asked about the shootings in Arizona, “At the risk of sounding harsh, how could the parents of accused shooter Jared Lee Loughner have missed so many signs that their son was a major safety threat?”

And when it comes to individuals with severe mental health or developmental issues, the history of parent blame is perhaps even more striking. And, as Dr. James Lock, one of the major investigators and proponents of FBT said in our recent training, “And let’s be honest, when we say ‘parent blame,’ what we really mean is ‘mom blame’.”

Indeed, the term “refrigerator mother” has plagued the moms of mentally ill and developmental delayed individuals since the mid-20th century. The idea was that the mothers of children with schizophrenia and autism were emotionally cold and distant. In the first paper to describe autism, Leo Kanner described a cause being “genuine lack of maternal warmth,” and parents of these children as “just happening to defrost enough to produce a child.”

Ouch.

Similarly, parents have historically been blamed for eating disorders as well. In the ground-breaking 1978 book, Golden Cage, psychiatrist Hilde Bruch suggested that narcissistic and unloving parents, or hypercritical and over-involved parents, actually caused these illnesses. Now most experts agree that parents do not cause anorexia or other eating disorders. When experts talk about parental contributions today, they are more often talking about the genes that they pass down. Scientists suggest that over 50% of a person’s risk for developing an eating disorder is attributed to genetics.

Does this mean that parents don’t contribute to the development of an eating disorder? I would say no. Parents comments, personalities, own mental health issues, and modeling can in fact influence the development of a disorder. And yes, in many cases those struggling need to better understand the development of their beliefs around food, shape, and weight and, at times, to even redefine what family means.

When things “go wrong” our instinct is to look to the parents; we believe that some answer lies in their egregious errors. Why do we do this? Perhaps it makes us feel safe. We need to know that the man with schizophrenia screaming at the wall couldn’t be our son – we wouldn’t let it get to that. Or that the girl starving herself to an emaciated death – we’re better parents than that. If the cause is genetic or, worse, unknown, then we’re all at risk.

But what we lose in blaming parents is the opportunity to enlist an incredible ally – people who (at least usually) truly know and love the individuals suffering. These are the people who at the end are making the hard sacrifices and praying to whatever entity they believe in for that individual’s safety and protection. When we riddle parents with blame, blame that they often all too easily take upon themselves, we’re might be colluding with the illness.

What role do you think parents might play or not play in mental health issues?

NTS-Medium

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25 Comments

  1. Katie @ Health for the Whole Self
    4 years ago

    While I do believe that parents can play a negative role by modeling problematic behaviors, I agree with you that it’s even more important to recognize that they are an extremely valuable part of the solution. My mom wasn’t perfect; no mom ever is. But she tried her hardest to do what was best for me at all times, including learning as much as possible about disordered eating and emotional overeating. The importance of her support cannot be over-emphasized.
    Katie @ Health for the Whole Self recently posted..Put Down the Dasani- World Water Day 2011

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  2. JourneyBeyondSurvival
    4 years ago

    Myself, I can’t blame anybody. I have a mental illness, and without casting any blame I believe my parents have one or a similar one.

    If I picked anything up environmentally, I think a great deal of that has to do with the disorder(s). Theirs, and my budding one. It explains a lot about WHY and HOW, but it does NOT assign responsibility.

    I’m happy to hear that parents are being treated more respectfully. And that parents are not being blamed.
    JourneyBeyondSurvival recently posted..Putting Down Roots

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  3. Dana Udall-Weiner
    4 years ago

    Wonderful synopsis of FBT and the potential benefits of enlisting family help. I have seen fantastic results from this approach, as well as rather dismal ones. In the later case, the parents are often too impaired to take on the all-important role of monitoring food and well-being in the child or adolescent. That said, I think it’s rare that children or teens can recover without the support and help of their families.

    I think you’ve made a keen observation that we tend to blame parents because it lets us off the hook and provides an identifiable reason a child is sick. And yes, it is the mothers who are typically blamed. Great post, Ashley!
    Dana Udall-Weiner recently posted..The Good Wander or Can I Get a Vacation Already

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  4. Heather Whistler
    4 years ago

    For me, blaming my parents for my eating disorder let ME off the hook in terms of my recovery. As long as it was their fault I was unhappy, as long as I was the victim, then I didn’t have to take responsibility for my own health and happiness by getting better.

    Interestingly, as soon as I found a solution to my problem, my need to blame them melted away. Not that they did everything perfectly, but blaming them for my problems, stewing about what they did or didn’t do when I was little, doesn’t help me in any way.

    Thanks for posting!
    Heather Whistler recently posted..A Lesson in Boundaries from Charlie Sheen

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  5. Tina @ Faith Fitness Fun
    4 years ago

    Since becoming a parent, I realize just how much goes into it and that most truly are doing their best. It is so easy to blame the parents and judge parents, but that shouldn’t be the case. Especially at the detriment of using them as a source in healing. You always get me thinking with your posts!
    Tina @ Faith Fitness Fun recently posted..My Ode To Trader Joe’s

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    • Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul
      4 years ago

      Thanks for your comment, Tina. It is easy to blame parents as you say and I agree that most are certainly doing their best. I’m sure it changes your perspective a great deal to become a parent and understand the complexity of that role.
      Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul recently posted..Five for Friday – 25 March 2011

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  6. Kate @ Walking in the Rain
    4 years ago

    I wouldn’t blame my mom for my mental health/eating disorder, but do think my problems stem from a very bad mix of genes from both parents, mimicing behaviors exhibited by my parents, and then a mix of negative behaviors/personalities from the people around me. That is the only thing I can think of to explain why three cousins (including me) ended up with eating disorders.

    Reply

  7. Melanee Dahl
    4 years ago

    Thanks for this post. I wrote a response here: http://mirrorhealth.blogspot.com/2011/04/real-power-in-responsibility.html

    Thought I’d share:)
    Melanee Dahl recently posted..Finding yourself in serving others

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    • Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul
      4 years ago

      Loved the response! Thanks for sharing it here. I’m posting on FB now!

      Reply

  8. Dr. Michael Katz
    4 years ago

    Dr.S–

    I really liked this article! So glad you’ve had a chance to hear from Dr. Jim Lock at Stanford. I wrote a post about FBT based on an email exchange I had with him. (http://eatingkids.com/family-based-therapy)

    He is VERY bright and his work is really fascinating. Good work!

    –Dr. K :-)
    Dr. Michael Katz recently posted..Ashley Solomon- PsyD

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  9. Judith, a single parent
    3 years ago

    A lot of great insights and information. Thank you.

    Reply

  10. Lauren
    3 years ago

    I just heard the term ‘referigerator mother’ and am doing some research. I was a perfectly normal happy mother of one until my autistic son arrived. He turned our lives upside down and repeated failed attempts to seek support and help resulted in depression. Perhaps it is this feeling of being alone and misunderstood by so-called experts that leaves us ‘cold’.

    Almost a decade later and all four of my children are doing wonderfully well. My son, now 10, is no longer considered autistic although he was labelled such at age 2. I believe there is a physical component to autism – some sort of hypersensitivity disorder similar to the sort that causes allergic reactions. We don’t blame mothers if one of their children has a peanut allergy.

    Also, if this is a subject that interests you, please read up on Carly Fleischmann. I agree with her theory that the only true expert on autism is a person who has autism.

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  1. By Saturday Surfing « Au Coeur on March 26, 2011 at 10:04 am

    [...] Refrigerator moms and the evolution of parent-bashing, Nourishing the Soul — why do we blame parents for their kid’s mental health? [...]

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