Hidden biases of psychological clinicians against mothers of children with anorexia nervosa

Sophie Karp, Fordham University


Psychology has a long history of blaming mothers for their children’s psychopathology. Notable examples include the schizophrenogenic mother, who purportedly caused schizophrenia by engaging in double bind communication, and the refrigerator mother, who was thought to precipitate autism by withholding warmth and affective expression. While these concepts have largely faded, a similar bias persists against mothers of children with anorexia nervosa (AN), who are often described as contributing to or causing their children’s illness. Although contemporary research emphasizes the multidetermined nature of AN, mothers continue to receive disproportionate attention and blame, heightening the distress they already experience. To date this bias has not been empirically documented among clinicians, although it is reflected in mothers’ reports and the professional literature. The current study assessed clinician attitudes toward mothers of children with AN. Participants were 126 psychologists and advanced psychology trainees who responded to one of three randomly assigned case vignettes describing a fictional client who was the mother of a child with a chronic illness (AN, schizophrenia, or type 1 diabetes). Vignettes were essentially identical except for the child’s illness. Results indicated that participants endorsed significantly more negative attitudes toward the mother in the AN vignette when compared to the mother in the schizophrenia vignette. Participants’ theoretical orientation was not significantly related to attitudes toward the mothers, although clinical psychologists demonstrated more negative attitudes than counseling psychologists. These findings have practical implications, both in raising awareness of hidden biases against AN mothers, and in helping professionals increase empathy and decrease blame.

Subject Area

Mental health|Counseling Psychology|Individual & family studies|Cognitive psychology

Recommended Citation

Karp, Sophie, "Hidden biases of psychological clinicians against mothers of children with anorexia nervosa" (2015). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3722206.