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Guest blog: My son's battle with anorexia

(42 Posts)
KateMumsnet (MNHQ) Tue 30-Jul-13 12:52:00

Eating disorders amongst boys and men is on the rise: a recent study found that the number of males being diagnosed with conditions such as bulimia and anorexia rose 24% between 2000 and 2009.

In today's guest post, Mumsnet blogger Bev Mattocks recounts her son's battle with anorexia - from the first confusing signs of 'over-exercising', to his eventual recovery.

Let us know what you think: is the rise in eating disorders amongst boys and young men something that you're aware of - and would you be able to spot the worrying signs in your own children? If you blog about this issue, don't forget to post your URL.

"Back in the summer of 2009 when my rugby-mad 15 year old son, Ben, began to show classic signs of anorexia nervosa, I didn't know that boys got eating disorders. I knew something was wrong - and that it appeared to be getting worse - but I had no idea what 'it' was. As the parent of a teenage boy you don't expect your child to get anorexia. You don't even think about it.

Like many people, I'd assumed that anorexia was a 'diet gone too far', and therefore a condition that only affected teenage girls. There was a skeletal girl at our gym who used to punish herself on the treadmill. How could she let herself get like that, I wondered. How could her parents let her get like that? It's got to be the parents' fault.

I know now that her parents were probably very nice, very ordinary people who were worried senseless about their much-loved daughter. They weren't 'letting her get like that' - and nor was she. Anorexia isn't a lifestyle choice like a diet or an exercise regime; it's a biological mental illness that can affect anyone of any sex from any social background and any country. And parents are NOT to blame.

People don't choose to 'get' anorexia; it just creeps up on them, usually when they lose too much weight for whatever reason - stress, illness, slimming, whatever. The cause isn't clear but up to 86% of eating disorders are thought to have genetic roots. And around 1 in 10 people affected by eating disorders in the UK are male.

Over that summer of 2009 my son, Ben, began to behave strangely. He developed an obsession with 'healthy eating' and low calorie/low fat cooking, cut himself off from his friends and exercised round the clock. At the same time he was gradually losing weight and his mood was heading south. But the penny didn't drop because we didn't know that boys got eating disorders - or even what a developing eating disorder looked like. Nor did we know that a whole package of horrors comes with anorexia.

Anorexia isn't just about cutting back on food and losing weight, it's about crushing depression, vicious mood swings, violent self-harming, suicide threats, social isolation and complete and utter consumption by this terrible all-embracing mental illness as your child transforms into someone you don't recognise - mentally and physically. Ben even developed a different voice: a slow, low, deep monotone that used to chill me to the core. And you haven't known fear until you've had to pull your beloved son in through the attic window as he attempted to climb onto the house roof.

But back at the start we didn't know that you don't have to be a skeleton to have full-blown anorexia. Nor did our GP, because it took weeks to get Ben diagnosed. We were then faced with a three month wait for treatment. Meanwhile Ben's illness reached ever more terrifying depths.

Two long and arduous years later Ben emerged from treatment - an appalling non-stop rollercoaster of nightmarish events that transformed us from a normal, happy family into a family living on a knife-edge. It took a further year, some additional private therapy and a failed attempt at university before the 'old Ben' gradually began to emerge again. Today, nearly four years after that summer of 2009, I'd say he is 99 per cent recovered.

But one thing that's proving difficult to shake off is the fear, anxiety and panic that comes with social situations. Anorexia is notorious for isolating its victims and while his friends got on with their lives, the once popular Ben disappeared into a vacuum. As a result he's missed out on four years of life skills, almost a fifth of his young life. His friends have deserted him and he spends every evening alone, which isn't what it should be like when you're 19.

Ben's recovery from anorexia has been a long haul that's left our family emotionally scarred - each one of us. I still have flashbacks that keep me awake at night. I still find myself shouting in my sleep. I still worry that Ben's anorexia will return. But most of all I want Ben to get his social life back - to pick up where he left off four years ago and have a happy and fulfilling life.

I want that more than anything else."

Bev Mattocks is the author of Please Eat... A mother's struggle to free her teenage son from anorexia which describes her son's anorexia and its impact on her family. Her second book When anorexia came to visit: Families talk about how an eating disorder invaded their lives has just been published, with a Foreword by Professor Janet Treasure OBE.

Follow Bev's blog: AnorexiaBoyRecovery.

OP’s posts: |
anna891 Tue 30-Jul-13 13:29:24

Anorexia can be caused by a multitude of reasons.

Sometimes the parents are totally at fault, remember there are some pretty awful parents out there.
I know, my parents were both NPD (narcissistic personality disordered)

I reckon it works out about about 50/50.

To say it is never the parents fault is incorrect.

SunshineBossaNova Tue 30-Jul-13 13:36:13

A male friend of mine had anorexia until his 30's, as well as other mental health issues. It was frightening to see him stop eating.

Best wishes to your son, I hope he continues to recover.

VenusSurprising Tue 30-Jul-13 13:49:46

There's a bit of research to say that anorexia could be attributable to mineral deficiencies - especially zinc.

Anorexia is a way of putting the brakes on IMHO. Saying no to life and wishing for a simpler time.

It can also be triggered from shock/ assault / being bullied. The desire to be unseen and unheard- to disappear can be overwhelming.

It can be triggered by external forces: parents, and others and events, and by internal elements: brain chemistry, dietry deficiencies and the high you get from being hungry can keep it going beyond all rational decisions.

To say its not the parents' fault as a blanket statement sounds like a get out of jail card used by parents traumatised by their child's disease, but a lot of things contribute to it: parental ignorance (and not seeking intervention sooner) could just one factor. You really can't say that it's not the parents' fault. It may be.

Glad to hear your DS has taken charge of his health, and has chosen to live. He hasn't lost those four years, he's just travelled farther then his mates. His journey to and from the dark side is important to him, and deserves respect.

anna891 Tue 30-Jul-13 14:06:45

VenusSurprising wrote;
The desire to be unseen and unheard- to disappear can be overwhelming.

This I understand. My parents wanted a boy after two girls, I was a disappointment.
Mother disliked me, and made it plain. I was rubbish, a burden. I was ridiculed, shamed and ignored.

I wanted to disappear. I never felt wanted or loved.

While I believe there can be biological causes of anorexia, I KNOW that sometimes it IS the parents fault.

charlotteUK Tue 30-Jul-13 17:24:21


Whilst I am sorry to hear that you have had an eating disorder, I am afraid to tell you that there is no known for cause for an eating disorder, other than an energy imbalance.

Whereas you may feel that your parents are in some way to blame for your eating disorder, there is no evidence, despite decades of research, to suggest that parents cause eating disorders.

The causes of an eating disorder are generally agreed to be a biologically based brain disorder (Tom Insell, NIMH). Why someone would be suffering from an energy imbalance can be down to many factors: dieting, overtraining, an illness such CFS or Mono, etc or a simple D&V bug.

However, to blame parents for someone developing an eating disorder ignores many important factors such as genetic susceptibility, the effect of starvation on the brain, the biology of starvation (see Minnesota Starvation Experiment), hormonal changes, peer pressure, co-morbid conditions such as depression or OCD, to name but a very few.

There is no proof that parents cause eating disorders. Really, there isn't. Would it were that simple. But like parents of autistic children and schizophrenic children, the myths that abound about parents of children with eating disorders are taking a long time to die. They are just that - myths - with absolutely no evidence base and without any positive outcomes from the vast swathes of clinical research over the past 30 - 40 years.

As a parent of a child with an eating disorder, believe me when I say that if I could have changed the world to aid her recovery, I would have done so.

To tar all parents of eating disordered children as some kind of monsters is both insulting, ignorant and dangerous.

To aid full recovery, fast and early intervention has shown the best results, especially amongst adolescents and children. Casting around for what "caused" an eating disorder wastes precious time and can cost lives.

For further information please visit or visit my Mumsnet blog - Charlotte Chatting and Chuntering.

working9while5 Tue 30-Jul-13 17:34:16

Charlotte, there is very little consensus on the causes of any mental illness. Very little is known. Of course there will be situations where parents are part of the picture in the genesis of any mental health condition: girls who are sexually abused by a parent, brought up to be rigid and perfectionistic or severely neglected etc will have greater vulnerabilities to mental distress than those from secure loving homes. Does this mean all individuals with mental distress are as they are because of their parents? Absolutely not, many very loving parents will have children who have mental illness. Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater though. It isn't true to say that we know parenting has no impact on these conditions.

working9while5 Tue 30-Jul-13 17:45:03

I also agree with Venus. This four years isn't lost, it is a part of his life and his story and not to be wished away or hidden or viewed as shameful. A huge amount of people suffer significant mental distress to the point of suicidality in their lives (1 in 2 will at some point consider suicide by some estimates, 1 in 4 will meet criteria for a mental health diagnosis). It is a difficult but real and valid experience that needs to be accepted and accommodated into your sense of self to say healing has occurred. I have had my struggles with recurrent depression and OCD, but I have learned so much along my travels. You don't have to ever like that it happened but it can be very healing to accept it as a part of the deep human suffering that comes to us all. Some might experience it through failure or loss or bereavement, others through mental distress, others through physical disability or social rejection. We all suffer though. There is no going back to four years ago and if your son is spending every night alone he is still on the journey to recovery (which is always a journey, never a destination). Good luck to you both.

charlotteUK Tue 30-Jul-13 17:50:11


There is a big difference between saying "Parents cause eating disorders" and a child's environment and upbringing has an impact on causing an energy imbalance that may cause an eating disorder in the genetically predisposed.

Ignoring the biology in all of this and blaming an environmental cause solely for "causing" an eating disorder is somewhat facile, IMHO.

Why is it that no one would even think about having this conversation about children with autism whereas parents of children with eating disorders are smeared with this?

charlotteUK Tue 30-Jul-13 18:02:30

Emilysh Tue 30-Jul-13 19:09:55

How outraged would we be if parents were held responsible if their child developed cancer, or Asbergers or Diabetes. Yet assigning blame to parents for eating disorders persists. There is NO evidence whatsoever that bad parenting in any form causes anorexia. There is however sound, clinically based evidence that it is a genetically predisposed biological brain disorder. Look at the work being done on neural imaging on the brains of sufferers of anorexia.

Tinks1990 Tue 30-Jul-13 21:42:06

I am a sufferer and had a specialist tell me and my mother that it was down to her and th way she brought me up...she was soon disciplined and her company retrained her due to the fact she along with all other people have no evidence what causes such crippling illnesses. So u should be really careful when passing judgement on things that u can not prove with any facts!!! I have followed this ladies blog on her own site and have read her book she is awesome support to me and my family as i know she hasbeen to many families. If people have nothing nice or positive to say keep schtum

anna891 Tue 30-Jul-13 22:27:07

To tar all parents of eating disordered children as some kind of monsters is both insulting, ignorant and dangerous.

For a start I did not tar all parents of eating disordered children as monsters. I have said that for some there is a biological cause, for some a dysfunctional toxic family will have caused it. And as much as you want to believe what suits you, I am right.

^Many experts think that anorexia is part of an unconscious attempt to come to terms with unresolved conflicts or painful childhood experiences.
^*The exact cause of anorexia nervosa is unknown.* As with many diseases, it's probably a combination of biological, psychological and environmental factors.
You say 'That the causes are biological' that is not a fact, it has NOT been proven, it is a theory.
I say the causes vary from child to child, there are many possible causes including biological, genetic and environmental factors.
It is also possible that parents ARE sometimes to blame as they were in my case. To ignore the impact a dysfunctional family has on a child is dangerous and shows a lack of empathy.
I find it insulting and ignorant of you to invalidate my experience.
To twist my words to suit yourself is not helping anyone.

anna891 Tue 30-Jul-13 22:39:42

There is NO evidence whatsoever that bad parenting in any form causes anorexia.
Not true, you just don't know that. Its your opinion, not fact. I could say the same about biological factors.
Bad parenting causes terrible damage. Whether it can cause anorexia is open to debate. I believe it can, your opinion is different.

anna891 Tue 30-Jul-13 22:51:21

^ working9while5 Tue 30-Jul-13 17:34:16

Charlotte, there is very little consensus on the causes of any mental illness. Very little is known. Of course there will be situations where parents are part of the picture in the genesis of any mental health condition: girls who are sexually abused by a parent, brought up to be rigid and perfectionistic or severely neglected etc will have greater vulnerabilities to mental distress than those from secure loving homes. Does this mean all individuals with mental distress are as they are because of their parents? Absolutely not, many very loving parents will have children who have mental illness. Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater though. It isn't true to say that we know parenting has no impact on these conditions.^
I agree with you a very sensible and measured post.

Lucca22 Tue 30-Jul-13 23:26:29

Sorry to hear about your son, I can remember going through a bout of not wanting to eat in my late teens. Looking back it was pressure of not wanting to look fat and attention seeking.....I even thought it was cool to have the disorder. Mine lasted about a year before the light switched on and I started to eat larger portions.
Teens are a terrible time, they shouldn't be but they are. Lots of talking and reassurance would have helped me to have a more positive take on life with all the great opportunities waiting for me. Wish you and your son all the best and hope that light switches on.

charlotteUK Wed 31-Jul-13 07:11:48


I often find it difficult when people hear but don't listen. I also find that getting involved in a you said, she said debate on the internet time consuming.

What I said was that Parents Don't Cause Eating Disorders. I have never denied the influence of the environment. To do so would be facile. The interaction of biology, environment and genetics is a highly intricate dance - to consistently focus on one and not take into account the others is a straw man argument.

In my wide experience, most people with anorexia are often more sensitive and empathic and react differently to life's trial and tribulations than others in the general population. This is part of their personality, along side traits which, in the non-ed population, are hugely admired and coveted, such as a tendency to perfectionism, an ability to concentrate, sensitivity etc. These are not BAD traits. They are traits that many strive for. However, when combined with a genetic predisposition (which you can blame parents for but...), and other environmental factors such as bullying, or puberty, or illness, can send a patient "down the rabbit hole".

The myth still abounds that somehow parents of children with eating disorders are abusive and controlling. That is NOT true for the overwhelming majority of us. I, for one, am sick of being told on public internet fora that this is somehow "fact". It is NOT. There is no evidence. As Emilysh says above, people do not even HAVE this conversation about diabetes or autism, but parents of children with eating disorders seem to be a fair target and that is not fair. Nobody talks about toxic families when it comes to early onset cancer. Really they don't. People automatically assume that a child with an eating disorder comes from a toxic family. That is NOT true. In both cases, the patient may have suffered abuse but it is pretty difficult to find any citations or discussions where a parent is automatically blamed and damned as toxic in childhood leukemia.

There is a big difference between causation and correlation. Psychology has undergone a seismic shift since the advances in genetics and neurobiological advances over the past 10 - 15 years. In some respects we are closer and in some respects further away. However, even the subject of "free will" has come into question.

I find that it is important to take a wider view than just my own experience of eating disorders. Luckily most patients (recovered and unrecovered - ages ranging from 6 to late 50's) are of the opinion that their parents did not cause their eating disorder and have done nothing but love and try and support their recovery for any length of time, (ranging from 2 years trying to get an appointment with an ed specialist to 30+ years for an older friend of mine).

BevMattocks Wed 31-Jul-13 08:27:35

I wrote the above blog post in late spring. Since then, I'm thrilled to say that my son's social life has begun to blossom and he has now established a group of friends that share the same interests as him. Also, he is off to university in September - and this time he plans to stay there!

Please keep your comments coming. I read every one of them. I still insist, like CharlotteUK above, that "parents are not to blame for their child's eating disorder". I accept that, in line with society as a whole, there may be instances where a child's parents are less then ideal. But it isn't the "cause", it could be a "trigger" for the weight loss, just as dieting, exercising, being ill, being bullied, etc etc could trigger weight loss which, in turn, experts are coming to believe, may trigger an eating disorder in people who are biologically "wired up" to develop one.

Increasingly, neuroscience research is showing that the brains of people with eating disorders differ from those without. And people with eating disorders tend to exhibit distinct personality traits, as described by CharlotteUK above. Do, please, read this fascinating article reporting on some of the world's leading neuroscience research:

BevMattocks Wed 31-Jul-13 09:15:11

I have blogged on the topic today:

anna891 Wed 31-Jul-13 10:09:34

My mother is at least 2/3 stone underweight, she has been obsessed with food since her teens when she described herself as chubby. She suddenly decided to lose weight and has been on a diet ever since the age of 18.

Was this anorexia caused by bad parenting? No I don't think so.
Mother has never complained about her parents, she always talks of them and her childhood with fondness. Her mother was a kind, generous woman. Her father could be 'strange' but was not a abuser.
He was very controlling with food and always slim. Even with his odd ways mother seems to have admired him.

My mother had a good childhood, but she has food issues. In her case I believe her anorexia is biological, inherited from her father and is nothing to do with bad parenting.

She is elderly now, and it is a struggle to make sure she eats enough, meals are thrown away, treats given away. She insists "I eat well, I like my food" But she only eat tiny amounts.

So I am not saying anorexia is not biological, it can be, like with my mother. I'm just saying there are many reasons, biological, genetics, environmental, bullying at school, divorce, bad parents. Sometimes its a person's job, being a ballerina or a model for instance when dieting is a way of life.

The frustration of watching a loved child struggle with this illness and fight to recover must be heartbreaking.
I glad your son is back on track. he is lucky to have such a loving mother.

anna891 Wed 31-Jul-13 10:21:59

There is a big difference between causation and correlation. Psychology has undergone a seismic shift since the advances in genetics and neurobiological advances over the past 10 - 15 years. In some respects we are closer and in some respects further away. However, even the subject of "free will" has come into question.
I find it interesting you have mentioned 'Free will'.
I believe free will is an illusion, we 'think' we have free will, but do we?
We do not choose our genes, or our environment and these are the factors that make us what we are, it is nothing to do with choice or free will.

kalidasa Wed 31-Jul-13 10:30:04

I think in a case like that of your mother anna it is pretty impossible to distinguish between a biological cause (a gene inherited from her father) and a behavioural one (that she learnt that controlling behaviour over food from her father, whom naturally she loved and admired). Though of course that's not the same as 'causing' anorexia.

Personally I do believe (having been anorexic myself for a while, though fortunately not very severely) that anorexia is probably in most cases a psychological defence or survival mechanism in the face of pressures that feel overwhelming - but that's not to say parents or family necessarily have much power over those pressures or how they are experienced by a teenager. As charlotte says, there is a 'personality type' associated with anorexia which may make these children and young people particularly sensitive to pressure of various sorts.

But then I would not rule an emotional or psychological element in the aetiology of diabetes or cancer either, which I know puts me in a minority.

BevMattocks Wed 31-Jul-13 10:38:37

Anna, I am sorry to hear about your mother's struggles.

I believe an eating disorder like anorexia IS biological, however, in that many people will lose weight as a result of any of the factors you mention above - and, doubtless, more - but only a small proportion of these may go on to develop an eating disorder. Look at how many failed dieters there are out there! Only a very small proportion will go onto develop an eating disorder; the vast majority will put the weight back on - and more.

Increasingly, modern research is pointing towards an eating disorder like anorexia being a biological illness that may be triggered by environmental factors, such as those you mention above. A whole range of people might be triggered to lose weight as a result of life traumas or events, of sickness, dieting, career, poverty, or other environmental factors, but not all of them will develop an eating disorder like anorexia.

I am sure that, in some instances, these individuals may have experienced poor parenting, as reflects society as a whole. But, in these cases, poor parenting is just one of the many possible environmental factors that may lead to an eating disorder in someone biologically predisposed to developing one. Out of all the families I have ever met who have had to deal with this devastating illness - and I have met many, both "in the flesh" and online, and through my blog and book research - not one has been anything other than "normal", "ordinary" and "loving". Indeed it takes a certain type of parent to bring their child through this illness successfully: a strong, loving and dedicated parent who is prepared to put their own life on hold while doing their utmost to save their child's life and bring them to full and sustained recovery. As I say in the introduction to my latest book:

"Through this book, we want to show other families that they are not to blame for their child’s illness. Eating disorders are biologically-based mental illnesses, not lifestyle choices. And, yes, eating disorders are about food - lots of it, being administered by strong, loving, dedicated families who refuse to accept that their beloved child is “in this for the long haul”. We know that you can’t “talk someone out of an eating disorder”; you can’t wait for someone to “want to get better”. And we recognise that parents are a vital part of a successful, highly coordinated treatment team. We parents are part of the solution, not the problem."

working9while5 Wed 31-Jul-13 12:59:58

Charlotte your tone to Anna is cold and unsympathetic.

BevMattocks, my cousin had anorexia and bulimia and I can assure you his family was anything but normal in the sense you describe. A good friend at university almost died from the disease: she had been horrendously abused as a child by he mother and still suffers hugely. I have met countless women who have OCD and anorexia comorbidly, not one of whom had a stable background. Perhaps those you speak to by virtue of being interested and caring enough to want to participate in research and communities online are a different grouping to those who have been abusive and difficult but the existence of either group doesn't really tell us much about anorexia really as the triggers and mechanisms may be different from person to person.

How on God's earth could anyone decide another's family is normal from the outside? What is normal anyway? Really it's pointless to be looking at any mental illness in terms of direct causation.. everything is multifactorial and individual differences are huge. However to categorically state that no person with anorexia ever has had their disease triggered, maintained or compounded by poor parenting on the basis of a few decades of research seems very premature given so many theories of neurodevelopment etc. Parenting is a huge influence across all spheres of human development. It would be pretty weird if anorexia could be categorically proven to have absolutely nothing to do with an individual's social history and experiences in a family of origin when our brain, biology, personality, ability to communicate, cognition etc owe so much to our upbringing.

working9while5 Wed 31-Jul-13 13:27:16

Also in terms of autism/diabetes/cancer etc, there are two important points. Firstly, diabetes and cancer have signs vs symptoms: their course is not behavioural, they are verified by blood and urine tests and they are not mental illnesses. Autism Spectrum Conditions are diagnosed by symptoms vs signs but these are longstanding developmental differences from infancy, including language and cognitive differences. In the case of ASC, for example, it is well proven that behavioural approaches to education can make a marked impact on functioning. No parent causes or chooses this for their family but parents can and do make a difference to how their child develops and where they end up, through the choices they make, their support for intervention, how they interact with their children when they are frightened or overwhelmed, their love and understanding and care for their children. And of course, there will be those who won't or can't provide what their child needs to their child's detriment, because anyone can be a parent and we all have our flaws and limits. The same will surely be true for anorexia.

There is too much time spent on finding what or who is to blame for things that just are. Personally, it would seem more important to focus on what parents can do once this illness appears rather than on blame or causation. Parents will blame themselves if their child comes to harm at the opposite side of the world, it is what parents do. No one can reassure a parent who is loving and caring they have done no wrong and no one can convince a parent who is not that it could have been different. It's just a moot point. If normal and ordinary are invoked, then let's be honest, we're on a hiding to nothing because there is no normal and we all experience suffering and trauma, we all screw up our kids sometimes, each individual has vulnerabilities that may be aroused by all sorts of well intentioned parenting choices. It's just never a good idea to focus on parental blame or lack thereof because it leads to people denying others' experiences in less than compassionate ways. No one has the right to tell someone who has anorexia it has nothing to do with their experience anymore than anyone has the right to tell someone else their child has anorexia because of their parenting.

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