According to the study's lead author, Analisa Arroyo, Ph.D., assistant professor of communication at the University of Georgia in Athens, GA, young adult females whose mothers frequently engaged in "family expressed emotion" which she explained as "an extraordinarily harmful pattern of criticism, over-involvement, excessive attention, and emotional reactivity that is usually communicated by parents toward their children," tended to have poorer social and relationship skills.
In turn, poor social and relationship skills were related to the daughters' higher levels of psychological distress and disordered eating attitudes.
Disordered eating attitudes involve "body dissatisfaction and unhealthy weight control beliefs and practice," the investigators wrote.
Although family dynamics, such as conflict and control, can affect children's emotional and social well-being, the authors found that neither predicted daughters' social incompetence. Instead, according to Arroyo, it was the mother's "hyper-involved and overtly critical" pattern of expressed emotion that was directly related to decreased social competence and indirectly linked to psychological distress and disordered eating attitudes.
"It appears that this corrosive form of family communication is particularly damaging to individuals' sense of self and well-being, as it seems to promote a struggle for control and self-enhancement. We believe that disordered eating can develop as a compensatory technique for dealing with social incompetence and negative emotions," she said.
The investigators suggested that, because parents are the primary agents in the development of their children's self-concept and social skills, by focusing on healthy parent-child relationships and teaching their children effective communication skills, such social competence may serve as a protective factor in the development of psychological distress and disordered eating attitudes.
The study was published in journal Communication Monographs.