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Conflict avoidance in anorexia nervosa: an observational study of mothers and daughters

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Adolescents with anorexia nervosa ( = 20) and emotional and developmental disorders ( = 14) were observed, during low- and high-conflict family problem solving tasks with their mothers. An observational coding scheme designed for the study was used to identify verbal (e.g., criticism or support) and nonverbal behaviour indicative of constructive and destructive communication. The frequency and sequential context of observed behaviour was compared between and within groups using -tests. It was predicted that during the high conflict task: (1) anorexia dyads would be conflict avoiding compared to controls; (2) that in both groups one family member would show more destructive communication than the other; and (3) that the rate of, and reciprocation of destructive communication would be greater than constructive communication in mother – daughter pairs in the anorexia group only. Results indicated that anorexia dyads showed more destructive communication than comparison dyads. Within anorexia dyads, daughters showed more destructive communication than their mothers, and the mean frequency of destructive communication was greater than constructive communication in the anorexia group only. Furthermore, mothers and their daughters in the anorexia dyads reciprocated each other's destructive communication to a greater extent than constructive communication. The results do not support the notion that conflict avoidance characterizes the interactions of ‘anorexic families’. By examining the behaviour of both the patient and a key relative, this study demonstrates that deficiencies in communication skills may underpin disrupted family functioning associated with anorexia nervosa. Family counselling techniques may provide an opportunity to support constructive approaches to resolving family problems associated with symptoms. Copyright © 2000 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and Eating Disorders Association.
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Keywords: anorexia nervosa; communication; conflict avoidance; family

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: University of Central Lancashire, UK 2: University of Liverpool, UK

Publication date: 01 October 2000

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