Anorexia and its Roots in Early Childhood Experience


Anorexia affects approximately 1% of teenagers, and is more common in females. Aged fourteen, Victoria is showing signs of this affliction. She is reluctant to eat, and is concerned with gaining weight. Her primary fixation is with the maintenance of a thin body. To understand this condition in adolescence, it is important to consider the role that hunger and satiety play in early ego development.

Getting needs met

anorexia needs met

In the course of normal development, the infant’s hunger is a vital life instinct that builds connections between the taste of a mother’s milk, the smell, and the mother as object. The ego adapts accordingly, and the infant links feelings of hunger with emotions, motivation, and fleeting sensations of intimacy in relation to the primary caregiver.

However, if the infant does not get their needs met, they become frustrated. In Victoria’s case, her mother experienced difficulties in breastfeeding. As a result, her baby’s needs were thwarted. In such cases, the ego uses repression as a defensive mechanism. The baby’s basic hunger drives become disconnected from the caregiving object. In other words, the baby disconnects from their desire to receive nourishment from their primary object.

This mechanism also removes conscious feelings of hunger and desire for food. This means that the very notion of eating becomes somehow alien and unwanted. As a baby, Victoria failed to put on sufficient weight. Her mother eventually fed her using a bottle, but by this stage her daughter appeared to have little enthusiasm for suckling and consuming the food. It is as though she doesn’t recognize the feeling of hunger. Victoria developed a deep-seated sense of anxiety around the notion of being separated from her mother. This is known as object loss anxiety – the person fears that his object will be obliterated, wiped out of existence.

Anorexia: repressing hunger

anorexia walk away


When feelings of hunger re-emerge in the conscious mind, they are repressed. This results in a painful anorexic state in which the adolescent restricts their nutritional state to the point of auto-starvation. Within this state is a regression to a point in life whereby the id severs the link (via the death instinct) between the natural hunger instincts and sensory experiences associated with the object. The missed feelings of physical hunger and the desire to remain very thin take on a sense of familiarity. This causes physical symptoms , but becomes a comfortable expression of pathological self-familiarity.

This means that adolescent anorexia has early roots in infant experiences, in particular the oral stage. It is a striking example of the way in which life experiences may play a role in personality and mental health for many years.

To learn more about the effect of our very earliest experiences on our later lives  read my book “The Enigma Of Childhood: The Profound Impact of the First Years of Life on Adults as Couples and Parents” available from Amazon and direct from Karnac Books.

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