Research — 20 August 2015

Greensborough father Phil Thompson moved his financial consulting business closer to home so he could spend more time with his three young daughters.

“Fathers have a massive role to play in raising daughters,” Mr Thompson, 28, said. “It’s really important that we show them that they’re loved and cared for and that they can talk to us about anything.”

Mr Thompson is right, according to new research, which suggests that negative father-daughter relationships can be a trigger for girls developing eating disorders and body image issues.

Newcastle psychologist John Toussaint​ surveyed women diagnosed with eating disorders about their perceptions of their fathers and their relationship with them.

Dr Toussaint found that 42 per cent of the women aged between 37 and 55 had over-protective fathers, while 36 per cent had distant fathers. Only one in five women had fathers that would be classified as caring parents.

“Fathers with negative attributes are significantly associated with eating disorders and depressive symptoms,” said Dr Toussaint, who presented his findings at the International Mental Health conference on Friday.

“Fathers play an important role in the development of eating disorders, self-esteem and body satisfaction.”

Dr Toussaint found a link between paternal rejection and women striving to be thin and tending towards bulimia. In contrast, anorexia sufferers tended to describe their fathers as intrusive and over-protective. They said their fathers often turned to them for nurture and support.

“The father-daughter relationship can be a trigger for pathological eating disorders and depression,” Dr Toussaint said.

But Sydney University eating disorders specialist Stephen Touyz​ cautioned it was a “long, long straw to draw” to say fathers were responsible for their daughters’ eating disorders.

Professor Touyz said anorexia sufferers carry a particular gene that makes them vulnerable to developing eating disorders. Stress and dieting behaviour triggers the illness in gene carriers. Bulimia has been proven to have a genetic link to depression.

“There is no doubt if there is a troubled family or stress at home that is a contributing factor to a number of eating disorders, but it is not the only one,” Professor Touyz said.

The Mission Australia National Youth Survey found body image was one of the top three concerns for girls aged 15-19, with 41 per cent of girls citing it as a major concern. Professor Touyz said that less than 1 per cent of teenage girls develop anorexia, while 2-3 per cent of women in their 20s are bulimic.

Dr Toussaint agreed that negative father-daughter relationships were “certainly not the only cause” of eating disorders, but stressed the need to be concerned about the attachment bond between fathers and daughters and how it affected girls’ self-esteem and body image. “It is critical to that person’s future grounding,” he said.

Dr Toussaint called on fathers to be “body positive” role models for their daughters.

This means modelling healthy lifestyle behaviours and attitudes, sharing quality time with their daughters, discussing negative media images and keeping it out of the home, focusing on their daughters’ lives not their appearance, and demonstrating respect for women.

“Fathers are their [daughters’] primary male role model,” Dr Toussaint said. “They set the stage for long-term thoughts and behaviours. Daughters learn from them what they can expect from the opposite sex.”

Butterfly Foundation chief executive Christine Morgan said parents need to teach their daughters how to deal with challenging emotions, so they can cope with the stresses of adolescence.

“We need to role model that what our value is as a person is not what we look like,” she said. “You can’t change your genes, you can’t change your personality traits. It’s how you use those attributes to strengthen you to be the healthiest person you can be,” she said.

Ms Morgan said parents shouldn’t be blamed for their children’s psychiatric disorders. “Parents carry an enormous burden trying to look after a young person who is not well,” Ms Morgan said.

“Having worked with many different families it’s a very rare exception the parent who does not want the best for their child. None of us is perfect, we all have different parenting styles, we all have different coping styles.”

Phil Thomson says he treasures his role as a father and thinks father-daughter relationships are often undervalued. But he knows he will have to make sure their relationship stays strong long term.

“Every night when they go to bed I ask them how much I love them,” he says. “They always put their arms out wide and say, ‘This much!’ I’d love that to happen forever.”

This article first appeared on ‘The Age’ on 15 August 2015.

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