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Family Support, School Climate Can Help Abused Girls Avoid Bulimia

Ed Hunter (352) 392-1773 x 278

Daniel F. Perkins, (352) 392-2201

GAINESVILLE—The support of family members and a positive school climate help physically abused adolescent girls avoid the binge-purge cycle of bulimia, a new University of Florida survey shows.

The survey of about 18,000 females ages 12 to 18 — mostly from Western and Midwestern states — who identified themselves as being physically abused was conducted over a five-year period in conjunction with researchers at the Search Institute in Minneapolis. Daniel Perkins, a UF youth development specialist, said the survey data indicates that with the proper support, physically abused girls are no more likely to engage in purging than other females in the same age group.

“These factors eliminate the impact of physical abuse as a risk factor of increasing the likelihood of purging,” Perkins said. “It decreases the likelihood of purging even though they were physically abused.”

Perkins said without the protective factors of family support and school climate, physically abused teen girls are 30 percent more likely to engage in purging, and girls who were sexually abused are 22 percent more likely to engage in purging. He said the survey shows how critical it is that parents be supportive and accepting of their children.

“Parents and other family members have a key role to play in terms of adolescents dealing with their identity and making them feel comfortable with themselves,” said Perkins, an assistant professor of human resource development in the UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “It’s really about loving them for who they are and maybe not highlighting negative things about their body or their appearance.

“As a parent, it’s really important that you focus on positives and that you really love them for who they are,” he said.

Perkins said family support relates to how much emotional support the young person felt she received from her family and how comfortable she was going to her parents with problems. A positive school climate exists when students feel school is a positive place to be, the teachers are supportive and encouraging and students have opportunities to be involved.

Valerie, a UF graduate student who doesn’t want to use her last name, said the environment when she was in school definitely contributed to her turning to purging as a way to fit in.

“I was always performing, I had to be officers in clubs, had to have the right grades and get into the right school,” Valerie said. “And there was even pressure at home, it was just constant. I had to be perfect, but I couldn’t be perfect. There wasn’t anywhere for me to let down, there weren’t any friends that I could let down with.”

Perkins said the study also revealed some risk factors that increased the likelihood that young girls would engage in purging.

“We found one risk factor being sexual abuse, so physically abused females who also reported being sexually abused were much more likely to engage in purging then physically abused females who did not report being sexually abused,” Perkins said.

An apparent risk factor that confused the researchers dealt with young people who had adults outside the family to go to with their problems. These young girls reported higher-than-expected rates of purging, Perkins said.

“This is a very confusing finding, and we’re still not really sure how to explain that,” Perkins said. “It may be that adults in their lives, while they are supportive, also may be fairly controlling and don’t allow the adolescent to have a lot of autonomy. And so in order to gain that control, they turn to purging.

“Another possibility could be really that the adults are just putting so much pressure on the young person to achieve that the young person doesn’t feel comfortable going to them to talk about this particular issue, and so as an outlet they turn towards engaging in bulimia,” he said.

Perkins said the survey also brought to light some significant differences in the likelihood that females will turn to purging based on ethnicity.

“African-Americans are much less likely to engage in purging than whites,” Perkins said. “That may be in part due to their broader image of physical appearance compared to whites. It appears that whites have a much more narrow vision of what beauty is compared to the African-Americans.

“Native Americans on the other hand are more likely to engage in purging, and we have not been able to identify why they are turning toward purging more than white females. It may be in part due to their assimilation into the culture and trying to fit in more, so they go to extremes,” he said.