11/22/2011 10:42 am ET Updated Jan 22, 2012

Eating Disorders Treatment for Children and Adolescents

In my last post, I outlined some basic considerations for someone seeking eating disorders treatment. However, it occurred to me that parents seeking eating disorders treatment for their children face a distinctive set of uncertainties, and candid answers to questions related to child and teen eating disorders treatment are likely to provide some much-needed clarity for families in a time of incredible stress.

Below, my colleague Elizabeth Easton, Psy.D., clinical director of child and adolescent services at Eating Recovery Center's Behavioral Hospital for Children and Adolescents, answers questions about treatment for eating disorders in children and adolescents.

How are child and adolescent eating disorders treatment different from treating eating disorders in adults?

The fundamental aspects of eating disorders treatment tend to be fairly consistent between adults and children and/or teens. Because these illnesses affect both mind and body, treatment providers will generally offer medical support, psychiatric stabilization and medication. Therapeutic support is also offered from skilled clinicians, including individual therapists, family therapists and dietitians.

However, key differences between programs designed for adults and those catering to younger patient populations pertain to the use of developmentally appropriate treatment plans and the availability of education services to help patients progress in K-12 studies during the course of treatment.

Developmentally sound care requires that the treatment team take into consideration not only the chronological age of patients, but also their developmental stage and their readiness to assume key responsibilities in the recovery process. Some patients who are either chronologically or developmentally young may require more assistance from parents regarding key elements of the recovery process, like refeeding, weight maintenance and compliance with the post-discharge plan of care. Furthermore, seeking effective treatment for your child or teen doesn't mean that a child or teen's academic functioning must suffer. Unlike programs for adults, child and adolescent eating disorders treatment can involve an educational component to help patients move forward with their studies to support a seamless transition back to school following treatment.

What should parents look for in an eating disorders treatment center or provider?

Comprehensive care from skilled experts is the most important element to look for when seeking eating disorders treatment for your child or adolescent. Eating disorders are incredibly complex illnesses, and it's critical to identify a provider with experience treating the diseases in young patient populations and a record of successful treatment outcomes.

Another characteristic that parents should look for in a treatment provider is an educational component. By this, I mean two things. First, look for programs that make a point of educating parents and families about eating disorders and how to support the recovery of their young loved ones following discharge from treatment. Lasting eating disorders recovery for your child hinges in large part on you gaining a thorough understanding of the illness, as well as learning about and practicing effective strategies for helping to manage recovery. Secondly, treatment programs should offer a structured educational component with adequate support from licensed educators to help young patients maintain academic functioning while in treatment. Intensive eating disorders treatment can be disruptive in the life of a child or teen, and every effort should be made to support them in this area of their lives.

What level of involvement can parents expect throughout the treatment process?

While previous models of treatment viewed families and relational dynamics therein as part of the cause of these illnesses, the eating disorders treatment community is increasingly embracing interventions that view families as key agents of sustainable recoveries. A parent's level of involvement will vary by treatment provider, but generally depends on two things: one, the provider's treatment philosophy; and two, the extent to which family participation is requested in therapy, education and activities and the availability of parents to actively participate in treatment programming.

One treatment approach that involves extensive family participation is Family Based Treatment (FBT), also known as the Maudsley approach. FBT recognizes that families are key figures in fostering lasting recovery among young patients, and engages them in the treatment process in the following capacities:

  • Restoration of their child's weight to normal levels (in respect to age and height).
  • Handing control over eating back to their child when appropriate.
  • Establishing healthy adolescent identity and discussing crucial developmental issues as they pertain to their child.

While many eating disorders treatment centers will encourage parents to be on-site to participate in family therapy and education, this isn't possible for all families due to a variety of factors (e.g., professional commitments, the need to care for siblings, the proximity of the patient's home to the treatment center). However, most treatment centers can make appropriate accommodations to engage families when they can't physically be on-site, including phone and Skype family therapy sessions.

What would you tell a parent that suspects his or her child has an eating disorder?

If you suspect your child has an eating disorder, trust your instincts. Parents often know when something is wrong. Educate yourself through research, talk to medical and mental health professionals and identify your support system. Don't let your child's eating disorder isolate you, don't dwell on the past, and don't lose hope. Identify what you want to work toward for your family, and take committed action toward that end.