The Price of Assumption

Recently, there have been heated debates between clinicians and parent advocates regarding the role of environmental and family issues in eating disorders. Some people insist that family dynamics and environmental factors play a role in the development of an eating disorder. Others bristle at the possibility. Some people say “families don’t cause eating disorders, BUT…” Others fixate on the “but” and disregard everything else.

My views on this issue are complex. Thankfully, my views became much clearer to me as I was watching an episode of the E! True Hollywood Story entitled Britney Spears: The Price of Fame. Now I am able to articulate my views on this topic in a way that most people can understand.

Numerous magazine and newspaper articles have reported that Britney Spears has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. According to unnamed “sources close to the pop star,” Spears was suffering from untreated bipolar disorder during her public meltdown and psychiatric hospitalization in 2008. While I have not treated Britney and thus cannot ethically make a diagnosis, I will say that her erratic behavior circa 2006-2008 could be explained by a bipolar diagnosis, and that the rate of bipolar disorder is thought to be quite high amongst people in the creative and performing arts.

Scientists now know that bipolar disorder is a neurobiologically-based, genetically transmitted disease. However, rather than focusing on the neurobiology or genetics of bipolar disorder, The E! True Hollywood Story explored various influences in Britney’s life that fueled her self-destructive behavior. Clearly, this type of commentary is far more interesting to the typical E! viewer than neurobiology, my own preferences notwithstanding. Several mental health professionals were interviewed and gave their opinions as to the influence of early stardom, family problems, a stage mom, excessive fame, and extreme wealth on the pop star’s behavior. Sadly, though, the viewer is led to believe that these environmental and family issues are the cause of Britney’s downfall.

Did Britney’s family or environment cause her bipolar disorder? No. Neither family nor environment can cause a brain disorder.

Did her family or environment fuel her bipolar disorder? Yes. And here’s how: Let’s say Britney had taken a different path in life, married a plumber instead of Kevin Federline and worked as a preschool teacher instead of a pop star. Let’s say she stayed in her small Louisiana hometown, never dabbled in drugs or heavy drinking, went to bed every night at a decent hour, and maintained close, age appropriate relationships with her family and good friends, making a decent living but nothing more. Would she still have developed bipolar disorder? Yes, I absolutely believe she would have (remember, most people with bipolar disorder are not pop stars, but regular people). However, her disease would have been much more easily diagnosed and treated if she had been surrounded and supported by normal, loving people who could influence her in a positive way. As it happened, her disease was certainly protracted and exacerbated by the lifestyle of a pop star, which includes late nights, insufficient sleep, excessive amounts of alcohol and drugs, and endless amounts of power and money.

If Britney’s therapist had held a family session with Lynne and Jamie Spears and Kevin Federline in attempts to “explore the family dynamics which contributed to the disorder,” that would be a complete waste of time. The elder Spears’ and Mr. Federline – the very people who are in the best position to help Britney recover – would have felt subtly blamed and marginalized. There is nothing to be gained, and everything to be lost, by approaching a brain disorder in this fashion.

The most ideal situation for Britney would be for her parents and K-Fed (and any other people close to her) to work together to provide family-based support to help her recover and to help eliminate any environmental or family factors which may be fueling her disease. It would be most helpful for her family members to be educated about bipolar disorder and understand that it is a biologically-based brain disease that she did not choose and that they did not cause. The family would also need to know that certain environmental factors, such as pregnancy and childbirth, stress, insufficient sleep, drugs and alcohol, medication non-compliance, or excessive emotional distress, can trigger episodes and exacerbate symptoms. The family would need to learn pro-active ways to help Britney manage her environment in a way that is most conducive to achieving mental and physical wellness.

In considering this example, it is important to bear in mind that people with bipolar disorder run the gamut from pop stars to professors to businessmen to truck drivers to homeless panhandlers. Families of people with bipolar disorder also run the gamut – some are amazing and supportive, others are average, and some are downright abusive. If treatment for bipolar disorder is to be successful, the clinician must perform a thorough evaluation of the patient and family, and the information gleaned from that assessment should be used to guide treatment decisions. A good clinician would not presume that the family of a person with bipolar disorder is dysfunctional or abusive, or that family dynamics caused or contributed to the development of the disorder. Similarly, a good clinician would not presume that the family is healthy or that there is nothing the family needs to change. Quite simply, a good clinician would not assume anything – she would simply perform an assessment and tailor her approach to the strengths, limitations, and realities of that particular patient and family, in line with the most recent evidence-based research.

Eating disorders are also neurobiologically-based, genetically transmitted diseases which patients don’t choose and parents don’t cause. Family issues and environment certainly can fuel eating disorders by encouraging dieting or glorifying thinness, by making diagnosis more difficult or treatment less accessible, or by making recovery harder than it needs to be.

All eating disorder patients have a biological brain disease which most likely would have arisen, at some point in time and to some degree, regardless of family or environment. Some patients have family or environmental issues which are fueling their disorder, and some do not. If such familial or environmental issues exist, they usually become quite obvious if you do a thorough assessment. These family or environmental issues will need to be addressed in treatment, not because they caused the eating disorder, but because they can trigger or exacerbate symptoms and interfere with full recovery.

But if there are no obvious familial or environmental issues fueling the disorder, please don’t waste time searching for them. You aren’t doing the patient or the family any good by “being curious,” or “just exploring.” You are simply satisfying your own voyeuristic drive, as I fulfilled mine by watching the E! True Hollywood Story on Britney Spears.

Why Psychodynamic Therapy is Harmful for Eating Disorder Patients

1.) The approach is based upon theory rather than empirical data.

Decades ago, when psychologists and psychiatrists first began treating eating disorders, psychodynamic therapy was the only tool they had. Science has come a long way since then. While there is still so much about the illness that we don’t understand, we have learned a great deal in the past decade about the etiology of eating disorders and how to treat them more effectively. Why use theory-based practice when we have evidence-based practice?

2.) It confuses symptoms with causes.

For example, one psychodynamic theory posits that girls develop anorexia nervosa due to their fear of growing up and their desire to remain child-like. In reality, the ammenorhea and boyishly-thin bodies of anorexic girls are symptoms of the illness.

3.) Insight and motivation are over-emphasized, especially early in treatment.

Insight and motivation are crucial to sustaining wellness later in the recovery process. But patients with anorexia nervosa suffer from anosognosia, a brain-based inability to recognize that they are ill. The problem with emphasizing insight and motivation early in treatment is the presumption that the patient must “choose” to get well and that, if she does not make that “choice,” no one else can make it for her. Precious weeks, months, even years are wasted trying to form an alliance, cultivate motivation, and develop insight.

4.) It presumes that the patient’s family dynamics are at least partially to blame for the eating disorder, and that correcting the family dysfunction will help the patient recover.

There is no reliable scientific evidence to support these theories. Families of eating disorder patients do typically present for treatment with high levels of conflict and tension. The conflicted parent-child relationship, however, is most likely the result of the eating disorder rather than the cause. Having a child with any serious illness creates enormous strain on even the healthiest, most functional families.

5.) It presumes that there is a “deeper meaning” in symptoms which are the result of malnourishment and/or faulty brain chemistry.

A great deal of time and money is wasted attempting to discern this deeper meaning. Meanwhile, the patient’s brain and body are failing, placing him or her at risk of permanent medical and psychiatric problems. I advise patients and families: Don’t waste time on “why.” The reality is that we don’t know exactly what causes anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa.

We still do not know the cause of many types of cancer, but we begin aggressive cancer treatment immediately upon diagnosis because the longer it goes untreated, the more grim the prognosis becomes. We can remove a tumor or give chemotherapy without knowing how the tumor originated. The same principles apply with eating disorders – the patient’s nutrition and weight must be normalized immediately, and dangerous behaviors must be stopped right away. The patient will benefit from these interventions, both physically and mentally – even if the “reason” for the eating disorder is unknown.

6.). Too much attention is paid to early experiences, often at the expense of solving problems in the here and now.

Psychodynamic theory presumes that psychiatric disorders stem from early childhood experiences. In reality, childhood experiences are generally irrelevant to the patient’s eating disorder. Even in instances in which early experiences are relevant to the current illness, there is no evidence that an ill patient can overcome her eating disorder “exploring” or “processing” such experiences.

7.) Too much value is placed on the relationship between therapist and patient.

While I completely agree that the therapeutic relationship is very important to the healing process (and there is solid research supporting this), I believe that this relationship must take a backseat to treating the eating disorder aggressively. This means that in order to be optimally effective, the therapist must listen to the patient’s basic needs rather than her expressed wishes (translation: the ED’s wishes), consistently nurturing her relationships with family members when she (translation: the ED) wants them to leave her the f*** alone, and setting firm limits on her ED behavior immediately rather than waiting for her to develop the motivation and insight to do so herself. In my experience, this often means that the patient (translation: the ED) will hate me at the beginning of treatment, then gradually grow to trust, admire, and respect me as treatment progresses and her brain returns to healthy functioning. Most patients eventually express gratitude for that early toughness and understanding of what had to be done, recognizing that they wouldn’t have been able to recover without it.

8.) It undermines the relationship between the patient and his or her parents.

Psychodynamic therapy involves deep exploration of childhood experiences and family relationships in attempt to uncover the seeds of the patient’s current mental conflict. The typical result of this type of therapy is that the patient begins to distrust and resent her parents for making her ill, and the parents back off even further out of fear of making problems worse. This results in further exacerbation of existing family conflict and the creation of new problems, once the patient “realizes” how pathological her family really is.

We now know, through research on family-based treatment, that empowering parents to help their children overcome eating disorders is actually the most effective way to help them recover. I believe that nurturing positive relationships between the patient and her family members is essential for full recovery and ongoing relapse prevention, as family members are usually the first to notice signs of struggle, and the first ones to intervene.

9.) It is extremely difficult to undo the damage done by psychodynamic treatment.

A substantial amount of the trauma that patients and families endure is not the result of the eating disorder itself, but rather the result of bad treatment and protracted illness. Often, patients and their families come to me for family-based treatment after months or years of traditional therapy which has not been effective. Even a newly-diagnosed patient will struggle with re-feeding, but having a history of traditional treatment makes the process much more tumultuous. It is extremely difficult for the patient to accept meal support from their parents when they have been conditioned to believe that separation/individuation issues are at the root of their illness, or that they have developed their eating disorder as a way to survive in a dysfunctional family, or that they will recover when they choose. Further, parents struggle enormously to become empowered to act on their child’s behalf when they have been blamed for causing the illness, either overtly or subtly, by their child’s previous clinicians.

10.) It does not bode well for relapse prevention.

Unfortunately, eating disorders have a very high rate of relapse, in part because the underlying biological vulnerability stays with the patient for life. In order to maintain full recovery, it is extremely important for the patient to maintain his or her optimally healthy body weight, practice excellent self-care, manage stress adaptively, and eat a complete, well-balanced diet. The beliefs that one’s eating disorder resulted from internal conflict, or that “it’s not about the food,” are not terribly conducive to these protective measures.

As science has progressed and newer, more effective treatments have been developed, there has been a backlash from the “old school.” Those who remain entrenched in outdated, unproven psychodynamic theories will defend their beliefs like a lioness defends her cubs because – let’s face it – these theories are their babies. They have built careers on these ideas; written books about them; conceptualized their own recovery through these lenses. But that does not make these theories correct, or evidence-based, or useful, or effective in treatment.

Let’s welcome a new generation of clinicians who use evidence-based treatment that strengthens family relationships, treats deadly symptoms rather than hypothesized causes, and promotes full and lasting recovery for all patients. Let’s welcome a new generation of patients and families who are not blamed for the illness, but are empowered to pursue aggressive, effective treatment upon initial diagnosis. Let’s welcome treatment that actually works and refuse to support treatment that doesn’t.

Rethinking Residential Treatment: Less is More

I am not a fan of residential treatment for eating disorders as it exists today. I am not aware of any scientific research suggesting that residential treatment is superior to outpatient treatment, with the exception of marketing materials from residential treatment centers (which have an obvious bias and financial incentive). We do know that hospital admissions and stints in residential treatment are poor prognostic factors – patients who remain at home and recover through outpatient treatment are more likely to recover than those who go through residential care. To be sure, the relationship between residential treatment and prognosis may be correlational rather than causal. Patients who are sent away to residential treatment generally have longer duration of illness, greater severity of illness, more psychiatric comorbidity, and a history of unsuccessful outpatient treatment.

There is one recently published randomized controlled trial of outpatient vs. residential treatment. Results of this study demonstrated that adolescents who were randomly assigned to outpatient treatment fared just as well as those who were randomly assigned to residential treatment. Given that outpatient treatment is less expensive and less disruptive to the adolescent’s life, the authors conclude that outpatient treatment is preferable.

I am a firm believer in evidence-based outpatient treatments which keep family members fully informed and actively involved whenever possible. Patients who receive treatment which prioritizes nutritional rehabilitation, weight restoration, and cessation of restricting/bingeing/purging behaviors as the essential first step, are more likely to achieve full recovery in less time. In an ideal situation, a skilled therapist can utilize the strengths and resources of the family and coach them in understanding eating disorders, refeeding their loved one, and interrupting her eating disorder behaviors. Families can also be coached in how to maintain a home environment which is conducive to recovery while their loved one participates in therapy to acquire healthy coping skills, learn how to prevent relapse, and manage any comorbid conditions. This is how the Maudsley Method of Family-Based Treatment works. At this time, the Maudsley method is the only empirically-supported treatment for adolescent anorexia nervosa, and has also been shown to be equally effective in treating adolescent bulimia nervosa. Empirical studies on the use of a modified Maudsley approach in treating young adults with eating disorders have not yet been published. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that many young adults respond favorably to a modified Maudsley approach – even those who have been ill for many years and have had numerous stays in inpatient or residential treatment. And, let’s face it: we don’t really have a good alternative treatment for young adults with anorexia nervosa.

The majority of patients who are treated with Maudsley do achieve and maintain full recovery. Simply put, Maudsley works, and there aren’t any great alternatives. Thus, Maudsley should typically be the first-line treatment, especially for adolescents with anorexia nervosa, and should commence immediately following diagnosis. That being said, Maudsley may not be appropriate in a minority of cases. For example, families who are unable to find evidence-based treatment providers near their home, families in which neither parent has the necessary time or energy due to very demanding careers or caring for other small children, families in which parents cannot agree to Maudsley and refuse to compromise or work together, families in which there is abuse or addiction, or families in which one or both parents suffers from a physical or mental illness which impairs their ability to parent their child effectively.

Despite the promise of the Maudsley Method, it is not necessarily effective or appropriate for all patients (this statement, while often cited by critics of Maudsley, is annoying and virtually meaningless because NO form of treatment for any psychological or medical illness is ever appropriate and effective for 100% of patients. This is not a weakness of a particular treatment method; this is just reality). For the aforementioned reasons, there is, and probably always will be, a need for residential treatment for eating disorders.

Residential treatment for eating disorders, as it exists today, has several benefits and several drawbacks. The benefits include:
• Supported nutrition to promote appropriate weight restoration
• Round-the-clock monitoring to prevent patients from engaging in bingeing, purging, restricting, and substance use
• Protection from self-harm and suicide
• Providing the patient with a respite from the stresses of school, work, sports, and everyday life
• Providing the family with a respite from the daily strain of caring for their loved one

The drawbacks to residential treatment, as it exists today, include:
• Prolonged separation from the family and home environment
• Prolonged absence from school, friends, extracurricular activities, and normal routines
• Exposure to other eating disorder patients, which can result in acquisition of new symptoms, solidification of identity as an “eating disorder patient,” and competitiveness with other patients about who is sicker or thinner
• Artificial environment – a “bubble” – which does not translate to real-world living
• Exposure to outdated and unproven theories about the etiology and treatment of eating disorders (e.g., blaming “family dysfunction,” search for “root causes,” exploration of supposed “underlying issues”)
• Failure to plan adequately for a smooth transition home
• Insufficient family involvement (weekly phone sessions and “family weekend” pay lip service to family involvement, but they often play the blame game, focus on presumed family dysfunction, advise parents to “back off” and not be the “food police,” and fail to educate families as to how to help their loved one recover. In essence, many family sessions send all the wrong messages and fail to send the helpful ones).
• Over-diagnosis of and over-medication for supposed comorbid disorders which are largely, if not entirely, the result of malnourishment and / or refeeding
• Attempts to use psychotherapy of any kind on patients who are not able to benefit cognitively or emotionally.

These last two points are particularly striking to me (granted, these problems occur with less-informed outpatient treatment as well). I have had many patients who were diagnosed with and medicated for severe mental illnesses such as major depression, bipolar disorder, or even borderline personality disorder, while they were underweight or re-feeding in residential treatment. In many patients, these symptoms decrease substantially or disappear altogether once the patient has reached and maintained a healthy body weight for a number of months. I have several patients who arrived at my office after years of ineffective treatment, with multiple psychiatric diagnoses, taking multiple medications. After weight restoration and maintenance along with evidence-based psychological interventions, these patients no longer required medication for any psychiatric symptoms and no longer met criteria for ANY mental disorder. Sometimes, less is more.

What many psychiatrists and other mental health professionals fail to understand is that all people who are malnourished or re-feeding, even those without eating disorders, exhibit symptoms that mimic certain mental disorders (see Minnesota Starvation Study). Diagnoses made while a patient is underweight or re-feeding are often inaccurate. Medicating a patient for a presumed mental illness which is actually the direct result of a malnourished and / or refeeding brain is at best ineffective and at worst quite harmful. Obviously, many patients with eating disorders do have genuine comorbid psychiatric issues, and clearly these need to be identified and treated. But even those patients with legitimate comorbidities may find that their other symptoms are more manageable, or require less medication, when their eating disorder is under control.

Nearly all patients in residential treatment for eating disorders are there because they are significantly malnourished or actively engaging in frequent binge/purge behaviors. These are patients with significant (though temporary) brain damage which renders them unable to process emotions, think rationally, perceive other people’s intentions, or think logically about food, weight, or body image. We know that this brain damage is reversible only after months of full nutrition, weight restoration, and abstinence from eating disorder symptoms. I understand the rationale that, since patients are in residential treatment, they should be given every possible type of treatment available from equine therapy to process groups to CBT to psychoanalysis to making pretty necklaces. I understand that the directors of residential treatment centers want to provide patients with every possible tool for recovery. But what if the patients are not yet equipped to use these tools? And what if some of these tools can be harmful? Again, this may be a case of less is more.

In my ideal world, residential treatment would retain the benefits it currently has while eliminating the drawbacks. Here’s how it would work:
• The immediate focus would be on full nutrition, full time so that patients can restore their weight as quickly as is medically safe and can break the binge/purge cycle (if applicable). This would include three meals and three snacks per day, carefully monitored. “Magic plate” would be employed, and patients would be required to eat 100% of their meals and snacks. There would be no “rewards” for eating well or “punishments” for eating too little. Eating disorder patients are punished enough by their illness, so the last thing they need is a punitive external measure. Rather, there would be no alternative other than to consume full nutrition, preferably through food, but otherwise through a supplement or nasogastric tube.
• Patients would be carefully monitored and prevented from hiding food, bingeing, or purging.
• Patients would be monitored for urges to self-injure or commit suicide and kept safe from any possible means of self-harm.
• No new diagnoses would be made and no new medications prescribed.
• No individual therapy, family therapy, or group therapy of any kind would be provided. However, a psychologist specializing in eating disorders would be available daily to provide supportive counseling for patients who request it.
• Patients would spend their days participating in relaxing, rejuvenating activities such as reading, watching movies, playing board games, getting massages, taking nature walks and practicing gentle yoga (when medically appropriate).
• Patients would be educated about the genetic and neurobiological basis of eating disorders as well as the role of under-nutrition and compulsive exercise in the development and maintenance of these illnesses. They would be provided with scientifically valid information on effective treatments for eating disorders and relapse prevention.
• Through phone conferences and/or in-person sessions, family members would be educated about the genetic and neurobiological basis of eating disorders as well as the role of under-nutrition and compulsive exercise in the development and maintenance of these illnesses. They would be provided with scientifically valid information on effective treatments for eating disorders and skills to help their loved one continue on the path to recovery at home.
• Family members would be provided with daily updates on their loved one’s progress, regardless of the patient’s age. Family members would also be encouraged to contact the treatment center at any time with questions or concerns.
• Family members and friends of the patient would be strongly encouraged to call and visit the patient whenever possible.
• A physician would set an accurate target weight range for each patient, taking into account her pediatric growth charts, weight/build history, and genetics. The target range would represent the patients’ ideal, healthiest weight, not some arbitrary minimum BMI. Research shows that the vast majority of adult patients require a BMI of at least 20 in order to achieve complete physical and mental recovery, so that would be a good starting point.

Patients would be discharged from my ideal treatment facility only after the following criteria were met:
• The patient has achieved 100% of her ideal body weight.
• The patient eats 100% of her meals and snacks with little resistance.
• The patient reports a significant decrease in urges to restrict, binge, or purge.
• The patient is not experiencing suicidal ideation or urges to self-harm.
• The patient expresses readiness for discharge and willingness to work towards recovery.
• The family has been well-educated about eating disorders and feels confident to manage their loved one’s symptoms at home.
• The patient and her family members have collaboratively developed a specific, written outpatient treatment plan. This plan includes referrals for evidence-based psychological treatment for the individual patient and her family as well as regular medical monitoring. In addition, the plan contains specific strategies for dealing with the patient’s eating disorder behaviors and for creating a pro-recovery home environment.

Although it exists only in my imagination, I would predict that a residential treatment center such as the one I described would be more effective than most currently existing treatment centers. It would also be much cheaper, since far fewer staff would be required. Granted, patients may have a longer duration of residential treatment than they do now, since the goal is 100% weight restoration, but patients would be less likely to relapse. Since this treatment center would be cheaper anyway, and patients would be less likely to require repeated admissions, the overall cost to the patient’s family and to society would be much lower.

Recovery Timeline for Maudsley FBT

I recently conducted an informal survey of parents who had used the Maudsley Method of Family-Based Treatment to help their children recover from eating disorders. My intention was to gather some preliminary data on recovery milestones which I could share with patients and families who are just embarking on the recovery journey. Then I realized that other people may benefit from this information as well.

The following data were collected from parents of some of my patients (past and present) as well as from parents on FEAST’s caregiver forum, Around the Dinner Table. A total of 22 parents submitted responses. The patients (20 female, 2 male) ranged in age from 10 – 24 years when their family started Maudsley (mean age = 15.3 years).

The patients in my sample varied dramatically with regard to the length of their illness. Some parents reported that they began Maudsley within a month after their child’s first eating disorder symptoms appeared. Other parents had watched their child continue to suffer from the devastating effects of ED through many years of ineffective treatment and numerous hospitalizations before finally turning to Maudsley as a last resort.
Granted, this is not good science, but it is a start.

Length of time from onset of symptoms to beginning of refeeding
Mean = 18.8 months
Median = 6.25 months
Range = 1 – 132 months

Length of time from start of refeeding to weight restoration
Mean = 6.7 months
Median = 4.5 months
Range = 2 – 24 months

Length of time from weight restoration to acknowledgement of having ED
Mean = 1.1 months
Median = 0 (acknowledged having ED when he/she became weight restored)
Range = 0 – 16 months
(90 % of the sample acknowledged having ED at or before weight-restoration)

Length of time from weight restoration to developing motivation to recover
Mean = 4.6 months
Median = 0 months (motivation developed at the time of weight restoration)
Range = 0 – 24 months

Length of time from weight restoration to eating independently while maintaining weight
Mean = 7.8 months
Median = 6.5 months
Range = 0 – 36 months

Length of time from weight restoration to mood normalization
Mean = 3.3 months
Median = 2 months
Range = 0 – 12 months

Length of time from weight restoration to normalization in anxiety (return to pre-ED level)
Mean = 6.5 months
Median = 3 months
Range = 0 – 36 months

Length of time from weight-restoration to absence of body dysmorphia
Mean = 6.9 months
Median = 4 months
Range = 0 – 24 months

Clearly, more rigorous research is necessary in order to draw definitive conclusions. However, I’ve drawn some preliminary conclusions based on my data:

1.) The Maudsley Method can be effective for children, adolescents, and adults. It can be effective for both males and females.
2.) The Maudsley Method can be effective even for young adults who have been ill for 10 years or more.
3.) Most patients who are beginning Maudsley treatment have anosognosia – they do not recognize that they are ill and do not have motivation to recover. The patient does not have to “want to get better” in order for treatment to begin.
4.) The majority of patients develop insight and motivation to recover around the time that they reach a healthy body weight. For some patients, insight and motivation develop gradually after a number of months at ideal body weight.
5.) Patients generally require continued meal support for an average of 6 months after weight restoration.
6.) The manualized Maudsley approach (Lock, LeGrange, Agras, & Dare, 2001) recommends beginning to hand control of eating back to the patient when she reaches 90% of ideal body weight. This is probably too soon for most patients.
7.) The majority of patients must sustain a healthy body weight for 3-6 months before depression, anxiety, and body dysmorphia abate.

This is interesting food for thought (pun intended). I am interested in conducting a much larger survey on families that have used Maudsley. I’d like to gather enough participants and enough data points to be able to do some actual complex statistical analyses – maybe some ANOVA’s or multiple regressions. Through this study, I’d like to examine which variables contribute to recovery time. For example, what features differentiate patients who are able to eat independently at weight restoration vs. those who need continued meal support? What differentiates the patients whose psychological symptoms melt away with weight restoration vs. those who continue to struggle? Most importantly, I would like to use data from this future study to find ways in which the Maudsley method could be improved.

What questions would you like to see answered? I welcome any and all suggestions!

Everything I Need to Know I Learned From Adolescents

A 31-year-old woman named Monica recently died from anorexia nervosa (AN) following a 15-year battle with the disease. Her death is an eerie reminder of what we already know: eating disorders are dangerous, deadly, and difficult to treat. Traditional treatment for AN typically takes 5-7 years. Less than half of patients with AN will ever fully recover, and of those who do recover, one-third will relapse. Nearly 20% of patients with AN will die as a result of their illness.

Just a decade ago, only 30% of patients fully recovered, and now nearly 50% will fully recover. The reasons for the improved prognosis include greater awareness about eating disorders, which leads to earlier diagnosis and treatment, and the advent of more effective, evidence-based treatment for adolescent AN, such as Maudsley Family-Based Treatment. But early diagnosis, early intervention, and the Maudsley method primarily benefit adolescents. Consequently, I would presume that the 20% increase in recovery rates over the past decade is primarily due to the recovery of more adolescents, not the recovery of more chronically-ill adults.

Although AN typically begins in early adolescence, those who die from the disease are more often adults who have battled it for many years. The most effective course of action is early diagnosis and aggressive, evidence-based treatment as soon as symptoms appear. Unfortunately, there are countless adults with AN who have struggled for years or even decades. As of this time, there are no evidence-based treatments for adults with AN, nor are there any medications which have been proven to benefit adults with AN. CBT has been shown to be moderately beneficial in preventing relapse in weight-restored AN patients but shows no benefit in underweight anorexics.

A lot of the AN treatment offered today is outdated and ineffective. Fortunately, however, there are more and more clinicians and treatment centers who are adopting modern, evidence-based approaches to treating adolescent AN that have much higher success rates. For example, the Kartini Clinic, the UCSD 5-Day Intensive Family Program, and the Children’s Hospital at the University of Chicago have adopted a highly-practical family-based, evidence-based approach to treating adolescent AN based on the Maudsley Method.

We can learn a lot from the success of these adolescent programs. I believe that we can use the basic principles of Maudsley FBT and the philosophy of these adolescent treatment programs to develop effective treatments for adults. Medicine, psychology, and psychiatry do this all the time in the reverse; that is, they extend effective adult treatments to adolescents. If a particular medication or psychotherapy approach demonstrates effectiveness in adults, clinicians automatically begin using it in adolescents, often without any research data to support its use in this population. Clinical trials are then conducted on adolescents, and research data follows.

Consider the basic principles of Maudsley FBT:
1. Conceptualization of AN as a biologically-based brain disorder of unknown origin
2. Externalizing the illness
3. Viewing family members as vital resources in a patient’s recovery
4. Recognition that most of the symptoms of AN are direct result of malnutrition and thus will abate after weight restoration
5. Focus on nutritional rehabilitation and weight restoration as non-negotiable first priorities in treatment
6. Acknowledgment that patients with AN are unable, in the acute phase of illness, to make healthy decisions regarding food and weight
7. Coaching parents to provide emotional and nutritional support to their child
8. Addressing psychological symptoms and other comorbid disorders after weight restoration

Which of these principles are irrelevant in the treatment of adults?

I see no logical reason why we cannot use Maudsley FBT in the treatment of adults with AN. Based on the patient’s circumstance and living situation, spouses, roommates, friends, or significant others may be enlisted for meal support in lieu of parents. The specific details may need to be tweaked in order to be relevant to an adult patient’s situation, but the general principles would remain the same. After all, the physical and psychological symptoms of AN are the same regardless of whether the patient is an adolescent or an adult. AN stunts growth and development and prevent sufferers from becoming independent, fully-functional beings. Thus, adults with AN are regressed physically, sexually, and socially to the point that they often resemble adolescents anyway.

The differences that do exist between adolescent and adult forms of AN are not inherent to the disease itself or even to the age of the patient. Rather, they are imposed by society. We, as a society, have arbitrarily determined that teenagers are fully responsible for their own healthcare decisions once they reach their 18th birthday. This is the case regardless of whether the patient has an ego-syntonic, anosognosic condition such as AN which impairs their judgment and insight. By virtue of their illness, adults with AN are unable to make healthy decisions for themselves. And yet, the law prohibits parental involvement, even parental notification of treatment, unless the patient signs a release. The law clearly sides with AN, not with the patient.

Family support and family involvement are powerful predictors of good outcome. Unfortunately, most therapists consider parental involvement in an adult patient’s treatment unnecessary or even detrimental. These therapists believe that the etiology of AN is rooted in controlling parents, separation anxiety, and issues related to independence and autonomy. Thus, they keep patients separated from the very people who love them most and who may be best equipped to help them achieve full recovery. This is counterproductive because a patient’s physical and psychological wellbeing must always take precedence over the developmental issues of emerging adults which, incidentally, have never been proven to be causally related to AN. Adult patients’ lives are threatened as a result of ignorant adherence to an unproven theory.

I firmly believe that Maudsley Family-Based Treatment can be effective in young adults. In fact, I have used this approach with young adults in my practice with great success. I have seen patients who have been sick for a decade, hospitalized multiple times, and endured several courses of ineffective residential treatment finally achieve recovery as outpatients through FBT. I look forward to the day when FBT is widely available to adults, as well as adolescents, with AN.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Therapists

What qualities make for an effective therapist? Good listening skills? Yes. Ability to connect and empathize with patients? Sure. A nice person who genuinely cares about you? Absolutely. These qualities may enhance the therapeutic relationship, which is important for healing, but the therapeutic relationship itself does not always translate into recovery, especially for persons with serious mental illnesses. A doctoral degree in psychology, a license to practice, and years of experience in the field indicate that a therapist is qualified, but these things do not guarantee effectiveness.

To put it succinctly, a highly effective therapist is one whose patients get better. Here are the qualities, in my opinion, that highly effective therapists possess.

1. A highly effective therapist conducts a thorough assessment at the start of treatment, including, but not limited to: diagnostic interviews with the patient and her parents (if she is <18), psychosocial / developmental history, family history, medical and psychiatric history, and consultations with the patient’s other treating professionals (e.g., primary care physician, psychiatrist). She synthesizes this information to arrive at an accurate diagnosis. She is cognizant of the multifaceted etiology of mental disorders, and takes into account genetics, biology, temperament, psychosocial issues, environmental factors, lifestyle and behaviors (e.g., stress, sleep, nutrition, exercise) when determining the cause(s) of the patient’s problems. 2. At the end of the initial assessment, a highly effective therapist has an in-depth discussion with the patient, and the parents of minor patients, in which diagnostic impressions are shared. The therapist provides the patient and her family with a scientifically-grounded explanation of her disorder(s) and explains the full range of treatment options available.

3. In collaboration with the patient, and parents of minor patients, the highly effective therapist develops a treatment plan. This treatment plan may consist of services delivered by other professionals (e.g., psychiatrist, pediatrician, dietician) and may consist of one or more modalities of treatment (e.g., individual therapy, family therapy, group therapy). Parental involvement is an integral part of the treatment plan for children and adolescents, except in rare cases when parental involvement may be contraindicated. For adult patients, family members are often included in the treatment plan to participate in family therapy or to play a support role. The highly effective therapist coordinates the patient’s treatment with the other professionals on her treatment team and maintains regular contact with all team members throughout the patient’s course of treatment.

4. A highly effective therapist has training and experience in empirically-supported treatments, such as CBT, DBT, ACT, Maudsley FBT, and IPT. She stays abreast of recent developments in the etiology and treatment of the disorders she treats so that she may better serve her patients. She uses empirically-supported treatments with her patients unless contraindicated.

5. A highly effective therapist is well-prepared and fully present, in body and in mind, with her patients. Therefore, the highly effective therapist is not over-scheduled or over-stressed. She has enough time in her schedule to meet with every patient as often as necessary, including last-minute emergency appointments when needed. She has adequate time to devote to preparing treatment interventions, adequate record keeping, maintaining regular contact with other professionals, and returning patients’ calls and emails in a timely fashion. The highly effective therapist demonstrates respect for her patients’ time by starting and ending appointments promptly and refraining from canceling or rescheduling sessions in the absence of a true emergency. She has sufficient flexibility in her schedule so that, if a patient must cancel a session, she can reschedule the patient within the week. The highly effective therapist devotes her full attention to her patient during sessions by turning off her phone, not responding to emails, and not allowing visitors to knock on the door.

6. A highly effective therapist knows when, and when not, to refer her patients to psychiatrists. She knows which symptoms and disorders usually require medication and which symptoms and disorders can be treated solely with behavioral or psychological interventions. She is conservative in her approach to psychotropic medication and views it as an adjunct to effective psychotherapy. She prefers for her patients to be on medication only when necessary, and on as little medication as necessary for optimal functioning. A psychiatric referral almost always results in medication prescribed. Thus, a highly effective therapist refers patients to psychiatrists only if there is evidence that psychological interventions alone will not be sufficient for recovery. When a psychiatric referral is indicated, a highly effective therapist obtains a signed release of information from the patient to communicate with the psychiatrist. Thereafter, the highly effective therapist maintains communication with the psychiatrist for the duration of the patient’s treatment and is closely involved with decisions to start, stop, and change dosage of the patient’s medications.

7. A highly effective therapist terminates treatment at the appropriate time and in the appropriate manner. Typically, therapy is over when the patient has reached maximum benefit. Sometimes treatment must be terminated because a patient is not progressing. At this point, the therapist assists the patient in formulating a plan for future care. When it is clear that a patient requires a higher level of care than the therapist can provide (e.g., residential or inpatient treatment), she makes the appropriate referrals and supports the patient in following through with these referrals. She does not allow the patient to settle for a lower level of care than she requires. Regardless of the reason treatment ends, the therapist provides the patient with the opportunity to create meaning out of her therapeutic experience. At the end of treatment, the therapist allows at least two sessions for the patient to reflect on her experience in therapy, the progress that she has made, and the therapeutic relationship.

In Defense of Helicopter Parenting

Last month, Time Magazine ran an article about the dangers of over-involved, over-protective parenting (otherwise known as “helicopter parenting” because these parents tend to hover over their children). The article is well-researched, well-written, and very interesting. As a therapist who frequently encounters this phenomenon in the parents of my adolescent and young adult patients, and as a product of this type of parenting myself, I have a few thoughts and observations on the issue.

I agree wholeheartedly with the author that today’s parents are far too over-involved and over-protective, and this is particularly true amongst middle- to upper-class families with well-educated parents. According to psychologist Eric Ericson, the primary developmental task of middle adulthood (ages 30-50) is seeking satisfaction through productivity in career, family, and civic interests. This is precisely the age at which adults are parenting young children and adolescents, and for helicopter parents, their striving for productivity is channeled into their children. Parents’ intentions are good, but the outcome can be problematic. You see, the middle adulthood psychosocial task of productivity stands in diametric opposition to the adolescent developmental task of identity formation. Children need to play, explore, relax, and interact with their surroundings in creative, imaginative ways. Adolescents need to loaf, “hang out,” date, experience “teen angst,” spend quality time with family and friends, develop their social skills, make their own choices (within reason), make mistakes, and learn from them.

Ideally, a healthy person will emerge from adolescence with a solid self-identity, resilience, confidence, good problem-solving skills, and the ability to tolerate discomfort and failure. Having worked in several college counseling centers, I can attest that many kids arrive at college without these skills and attributes. Their lives have been geared entirely towards achievement in academics, arts, and athletics, often not for the love of science or music or soccer, but because their parents pushed them and/or because they believed it would improve their chances of gaining admission to a prestigious college. Quite often, they don’t know how to structure their time, study properly, deal with disappointment, or make decisions independently. Sadly, many of them do not know who they are or what they enjoy.

Helicopter parenting has the potential to be quite harmful to children by increasing their stress and anxiety and preventing them from developing self-confidence, resourcefulness, problem-solving skills, distress tolerance skills, emotion regulation skills, and creativity. Children and adolescents are over-scheduled, over-worked, and pushed to succeed, often at the expense of their emotional health. There is not enough unstructured time for kids to play, explore, or create. There is little room for adolescent identity formation in between AP classes, Princeton Review SAT prep courses, college applications, three varsity sports, band practice, clubs, and mandatory community service hours.

These issues notwithstanding, one problem I have seen far too often in my profession is the tendency for therapists to blame helicopter parents for causing their child’s eating disorder. It is easy to look at over-involved parents and an adolescent’s misguided search for control and identity through self-starvation and conclude that the former caused the latter. But the belief that over-involved, controlling, or enmeshed parents cause children to develop anorexia nervosa (AN) or bulimia nervosa (BN) lacks solid scientific evidence. What’s worse, this belief has the potential to undermine treatment, disempower parents, confuse children, perpetuate deadly symptoms, erode physical and mental health, destroy families, and turn an acute illness into a chronic and disabling one.

There is a correlation between over-involved, over-protective parenting and the development of AN, but correlation does not necessarily indicate causation. If variable A (helicopter parenting) and variable B (child’s development of AN) are correlated, there are several possible explanations for the relationship between these two variables:

1.) A causes B
2.) B causes A
3.) Variable C causes both A and B
4.) Variables D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, and N work together in complex ways to influence the development of both A and B.

Let’s examine each possible explanation.

1.) Explanation 1: Helicopter parenting causes children to develop AN. There is no reliable scientific evidence to support this explanation. Ironically, this explanation is touted far more frequently than the others, even by clinicians who specialize in treating eating disorders.
2.) Explanation 2: A child’s AN causes parents to become over-involved or over-protective. There is some evidence to support this explanation. If parents were not anxious, cautious, protective, or hovering before their child developed AN, you’d better believe they will be once their child becomes ill. This phenomenon is not unique to AN. Parents of children with any illness or medical condition naturally worry about their child and do whatever they can to protect her.
3.) Explanation 3: A third variable causes both helicopter parenting and AN in children. There is a wealth of evidence to support the genetic transmission of AN as well as related personality traits. The personality traits that predispose people to developing AN – anxiety, obsessiveness, perfectionism, and harm-avoidance – are largely genetic. In an adolescent female, these traits are likely to manifest as an eating disorder. In a middle-aged, middle-class, intelligent, well-educated parent, these traits are likely to manifest as over-involvement, over-protection, and over-investment in their child.
4.) Explanation 4: A complex interaction of other variables work together to produce both helicopter parenting and AN in children. This is the most thorough, and probably the most accurate explanation. As stated in explanation #3, genetics plays a major role in the development of AN. A wealth of environmental variables are also believed to influence the development of parenting style as well as AN (e.g., level of education, income, culture, peer group, family background, exposure to stressful life events).

I love working with adolescent children of helicopter parents. I require parents to be fully informed and actively involved in their child’s treatment, and helicopter parents slide seamlessly into this role. They are excellent candidates for Maudsley Family-Based Treatment because their anxiety level is high enough to propel them towards action, they thoroughly educate themselves on their child’s condition, they seek out the best treatment and resources, they are vigilant and persistent, they maintain a very high level of involvement and supervision, and they are tremendously invested in their child’s recovery. Misguided, ill-informed, old-school therapists argue that these characteristics caused the child’s AN, and they advise parents to “back off” and allow the child to make her own choices about food and weight and treatment. This approach rarely leads to lasting recovery.

While helicopter parenting certainly has the potential to cause harm, it can also be used to the child’s advantage in recovery if channeled properly. Helicopter parents tend to be wildly successful in Maudsley Phase I (re-feeding / weight restoration), and largely successful in Phase II (helping the adolescent eat properly on her own). Some of these parents are eager to step back in Phase III as their child deals with psychological and social issues and develops a healthy adolescent identity. Other parents struggle to let go when the time comes. With proper guidance from a good therapist, however, most helicopter parents can learn to manage their own anxiety enough to allow their children to blossom and develop as healthy, independent young adults. This does not come naturally for them, but never underestimate the power of the helicopter parent. If the therapist who helped save their beloved child from a life threatening illness coaches them to step back and let go, they’ll do it.

Eating Disorders: Prevention and Early Intervention Tips for Parents

There is a fair amount of internet advice for parents on how to prevent eating disorders in their children. The majority of this advice centers around teaching children about healthy eating habits, moderate exercise, positive body image, and media literacy. This is great advice for parents to follow, but it does not prevent eating disorders. It may help to prevent body dissatisfaction and dieting, but these things are not the same as an eating disorder.

Ironically, many children and adolescents who are in treatment for anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa report that their illness was triggered by a health or nutrition class at school, training for a sport, or a general desire to adopt the much-touted principles of “healthy eating and exercise.” Unfortunately, most of the information children receive on the benefits of “healthy eating and exercise” is really our fat-phobic society’s disguised attempt to shield our precious children from this horrible “obesity epidemic.” To make matters worse, this information is delivered to children by teachers, physicians, coaches, and parents – supposedly knowledgeable authority figures whose job is to educate, protect, and nurture them. Children who are predisposed to eating disorders are usually compliant, rule-bound, anxious, obsessive, perfectionistic, driven, and eager to please. They are virtual sponges who soak up this “healthy eating and exercise” information and follow it to the letter. The obesity hysteria terrifies them, and their obsessive, perfectionistic temperament makes them stellar dieters. This is the perfect storm for the development of an eating disorder.

I do not believe we should stop educating children about nutrition and exercise out of fear that they will develop eating disorders, much as I don’t believe we should stop educating adolescents about safe sex and contraception out of fear that they will become sexually active. More information is usually better than less, as long as the information is accurate, useful, and effective. The middle school and high school syllabi on sex education provide information which is accurate, useful, and effective (whether kids act on that information is another story). The information kids receive on “healthy eating and exercise” has not succeeded in improving their overall health, preventing eating disorders, or combating this alleged “obesity epidemic.”

I believe that, in terms of nutrition, kids should be taught about what to embrace rather than what to avoid. They should learn the importance of eating lots of fruit, vegetables, dairy products, protein, fat, and grains, and drinking plenty of water. They should be taught to enjoy their favorite snacks and deserts as well. They should not be taught about calories or the evils of sugar and fat; they should not be advised to avoid any foods, they should not learn to label foods as “good” or “bad,” and they should not be taught about the dangers of obesity or the virtue of thinness. Most importantly, I believe children should be taught about the dangers of dieting, much as they are taught about the dangers of drugs, alcohol, and unprotected sex. The dangers of dieting are grossly underrated.

Even if nutrition education is accurate, useful, and effective, it will not prevent eating disorders. That being said, what steps can parents take to prevent their children from developing eating disorders? In my opinion, it all boils down to three basic principles: 1.) accurate information, 2.) vigilance, and 3.) immediate, aggressive, effective intervention.

Accurate information
The pop-psychology literature will have you believe that if you have a healthy body image yourself, encourage healthy body image in your children, nurture positive self-esteem, and preach the importance of healthy eating habits and exercise, your child will not develop an eating disorder. This assumption is simply untrue. Parents need to know that seemingly healthy, well-adjusted children with positive body images and excellent parents develop eating disorders all the time. Good parenting does not make your child immune. It can, however, improve your child’s chances of full recovery.

If your child develops an eating disorder, let go of guilt, shame, and self-blame. While it is natural for parents to blame themselves, guilt is a hindrance to effective action. Of course you have made mistakes in parenting – everyone has! You may be an imperfect parent, but this does not mean you caused your child’s illness. Despite what you may have heard in the media, there is no reliable scientific evidence to suggest that parents cause eating disorders. If your child’s pediatrician, dietician, or therapist suggests that the eating disorder is your fault, this is an indication that he or she is not aware of recent research on the etiology of eating disorders and effective treatments. Get a second opinion. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are biologically-based brain disorders, just like autism and schizophrenia. Although you are not to blame for causing your child’s eating disorder, it is your responsibility as a parent to ensure that she gets proper treatment. This responsibility includes protecting your child from outdated, ineffective treatments, which can often do more harm than good.

Parents also need to know that eating disorders are not limited to rich, white teenage girls. This stereotype is antiquated and dangerous, as it prevents individuals outside these demographic categories from being diagnosed and properly treated. Eating disorders strike children, adolescents, and adults; girls and boys, men and women; people of all ethnic, cultural, and economic backgrounds. Several years ago, during my training, I treated a severely underweight teenage boy with anorexia nervosa whose previous pediatrician had told him: “If you were a girl, I’d say you were anorexic.” As a result of this doctor’s failure to intervene, the patient’s condition rapidly deteriorated over the next two years, and by the time he presented in my office, he was in horrible shape.

Vigilance
Here are some concrete steps that parents can take to help prevent eating disorders. You may notice that, unlike other prevention tips you may have read, these tips center around proper nutrition and exercise. This is because all the feminist, feel-good, positive-body image talk in the world is not going to prevent eating disorders. Remember, anorexia nervosa has existed for centuries, long before thinness became fashionable. Eating disorders are triggered by an energy imbalance (consuming fewer calories than you expend) and perpetuated by malnutrition. If a child never becomes malnourished, she is extremely unlikely to develop an eating disorder.
• Make family meals a priority. As a parent, it is your job to prepare and serve nutritious foods. It is far better for a family to sit down to a balanced breakfast of cereal, milk, fruit, juice, and yogurt instead of grabbing a nutrigrain bar and running out the door.
• Closely monitor any changes in your child’s eating habits. Even seemingly “positive” dietary changes such as skipping desert, becoming vegetarian, or reducing fat intake can signal the onset of an eating disorder.
• Adopt a zero-tolerance policy towards any level of malnutrition. Do not allow your child to diet, skip meals, or cut out entire food groups. Children and teenagers need to eat three substantial, nutritious, well-balanced meals every day. Supervised, supported full nutrition is the best defense against an eating disorder.
• Be aware that eating disorders are sometimes triggered by unintentional malnourishment (for example, weight loss due to physical illness, depression, anxiety, stress, or surgery; fasting for religious purposes; side effects of a medication; intense physical exercise without a commensurate increase in nutrition). This type of malnourishment must be taken equally seriously. Dieting is not the only pathway to eating disorders (although it is the most common pathway in modern Western cultures).

Parents need to be on guard for early signs of eating disorders, especially during early adolescence, when most eating disorders develop. Since eating disorders are genetically transmitted, your child is much more vulnerable to developing an eating disorder if you or a relative has suffered from an eating disorder. Family histories of major depression and other mood disorders, anxiety disorders, OCD, and addictions are also risk factors for developing eating disorders. If you have a family history of eating disorders or other mental illnesses, you should know that your child is at greater risk for developing an eating disorder, and you should be extra vigilant.

Some early signs of eating disorders masquerade as “healthy” behaviors or extreme dedication, or can easily be dismissed as typical teenage behavior. However, parents know their kids well. Most parents recognize, long before formal diagnosis, that something is “not quite right” with their child, but they aren’t sure what is wrong or they don’t know what to do. Here are some early signs and symptoms:
• Change in eating habits. This can take many forms, including following a formal diet plan, skipping meals, eating only at certain times, refusing to eat with other people, or anxiety around food. Even seemingly positive dietary changes, such as becoming vegetarian, reducing fat intake, skipping snacks and deserts, and eating only organic foods, can be early signs of an eating disorder.
• Increased preoccupation with food: taking about food, reading diet books, collecting recipes, cooking, serving food to others, sudden interest in what other people are eating.
• Change in mood or behavior. Parents often notice dramatic changes in their child’s personality, such as irritability, anxiety, depression, moodiness, frequent crying, restlessness, withdrawal, changes in sleeping patterns, or loss of interest. Increased dedication to schoolwork, sports, or other extracurricular activities and obsessive behavior in other areas can also be early signs.
• Increase in exercise. The child may begin solo running, take up a new sport, or show increased dedication to her current sports. If she is an athlete, she may begin training excessively outside of team practices. If she is a dancer, she may begin practicing at home, signing up for more dance classes, and auditioning for every possible performance opportunity.
• Weight loss, failure to gain weight, or failure to make expected gains in height. ANY weight loss in a child or adolescent, even a few pounds, may be cause for alarm. ANY failure to grow or gain weight as expected warrants further examination.
• Loss of menstrual periods.
• Signs of binge eating (for example, large amounts of food disappearing overnight).
• Signs of purging (for example, discovering laxatives in your child’s purse or smells of vomit in her bathroom).

Immediate, Aggressive, Effective intervention
I have never heard a parent say: “I wish I had waited longer before getting my child into treatment.” Most parents whose children are in treatment for eating disorders regret not intervening sooner. In addition, many parents report that they wish they had sought out evidence-based treatment immediately, rather than continuing with ineffective treatment as their child’s health declines. If you notice any of the signs or symptoms listed above, take action immediately. Here’s how:
• Educate yourself about eating disorders and evidence-based treatment. FEAST (Families Empowered and Supporting Treatment for Eating Disorders) is an excellent resource for parents.
• Do not praise your child for her “healthy eating” habits or willpower around food. Instead, tell her that you have noticed a change in her eating habits and that you are concerned. For example: “I notice that you’re not enjoying ice cream with our family anymore. What has changed?”
• Be prepared for your child to insist that she is just trying to eat healthily, exercise more, or improve her performance in sports or dance. Many eating disorders begin this way but quickly spiral into deadly obsessions.
• Be prepared for your child to be in denial or to resist your efforts to intervene. Teenagers never say: “Mom, I think I’m developing anorexia nervosa, and I’m worried about my recent weight loss.” Denial, resistance, and lack of insight are symptoms of this disease, NOT indications that everything is OK. Don’t back down.
• Don’t waste time on “why.” When your child is developing an eating disorder, it is tempting to try to understand the reasons for it. Resist this temptation and tackle the symptoms immediately. The very foundation of ineffective eating disorder treatment begins with endless search for the “root cause” while the child continues to starve, binge, purge, and over-exercise as her physical and mental health deteriorate. A patient with an active eating disorder is generally unable to make effective use of psychotherapy because her brain is not functioning properly. Eating disorders are life-threatening illnesses with serious mental and physical risks. Think of your child’s eating disorder as a tumor. It must be removed immediately, or it will grow and metastasize. The surgeon does not need to know the reason for the tumor in order to operate and remove it. The sooner you intervene, the better your child’s chances for complete recovery. There will be plenty of time for psychological work, including an exploration of potential triggers, later on in recovery, once your child is well-nourished and physically healthy.
• As soon as you suspect a problem, take your child to the pediatrician for a complete physical exam. Unfortunately, most physicians do not have specialized training in eating disorders and are unlikely to notice an eating disorder until it is in its advanced stages. Thus, you cannot always trust your child’s pediatrician to spot a problem. I have had many patients whose physicians have completely overlooked telltale signs such as weight loss, missed menstrual periods, or failure to grow. Consider taking your child to a pediatrician or adolescent medicine physician who specializes in eating disorders. Remember, trust your parental instincts. If you think there is something wrong with your child, you are probably right. It is far better to intervene immediately and later discover that everything is fine, rather than waiting until your child is in the acute phase of a life-threatening mental illness.
• If you intervene at the first sign of an eating disorder, your child may not meet full criteria for anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. Thus, she may be diagnosed with Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, or she may not be diagnosed with an eating disorder at all. This does not mean that your child’s problem isn’t serious or that immediate, aggressive intervention isn’t necessary. It simply means that your child is in the beginning stages of what is likely to become a severe, life-threatening mental illness if left untreated (or improperly treated). Your child is most likely to achieve complete, lasting recovery treatment begins immediately, rather than waiting for her to develop full-syndrome anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa and the myriad of psychological and physical problems these illnesses entail.
• If your child has been in therapy for a while and she continues to restrict her diet, lose weight, binge, or purge, therapy is not working. In early recovery, it does not matter if your child has a good relationship with her therapist, enjoys speaking with her, or trusts her. The therapeutic relationship is only therapeutic insofar as it promotes health, wellness, and recovery. Insight, self-exploration, and rapport are useless in the wake of malnutrition. Speak with your child’s therapist about taking a different approach. If your child’s therapist refuses to talk to you, or if you are not satisfied with the results of treatment, find a different therapist.
• Seek evidence-based psychological treatment for your child and your family. Most therapists, even ones who specialize in eating disorders, are not up-to-date on the latest research and most effective treatments. I have worked with many families who have taken their child to multiple eating disorders specialists over a period of several years and seen no symptom improvement whatsoever. This is usually because the therapists were not aware of recent scientific research on eating disorders and were not using evidence-based treatments. For children and adolescents, the strongest evidence base is for Maudsley Family-Based Treatment (FBT). Maudsley FBT is a highly practical, empirically-validated treatment method which empowers the family to help the patient recover and focuses on immediate restoration of nutritional and physical health before tackling psychological issues. Research has shown that 75-90% of adolescents treated with Maudsley FBT recover within 12 months and maintain their recovery at 5-year follow-up. In contrast, traditional treatment generally takes 5-7 years and only 33% of patients achieve full recovery.
• Remember that you are an essential member of your child’s treatment team. Your child’s treatment will be most effective if you are fully informed and actively involved. Interview any potential physicians, dieticians, therapists, and psychiatrists without your child present before your child meets them. Make sure that you are comfortable with their philosophy of eating disorders and their approach to treatment. Insist on being informed about your child’s progress in treatment and ask what you can do to help her recover. If the therapist will not inform you or include you in treatment decisions, find a new therapist.
• Recognize that your child’s eating disorder is neither her fault nor her choice. Do not wait for her to “choose” recovery, because she can’t. It is your job to choose recovery for her until she is well enough to take ownership of her treatment. Try to separate the disorder from the child you know and love. She is in there somewhere, and some day, she will thank you.

Confidentiality in Adolescent Psychotherapy

Confidentiality is a cornerstone of the therapeutic relationship. The ethics of my profession require that all communication between my patients and me remains confidential. In other words, I cannot disclose the information a patient reveals in session, or my own impressions about a patient, to anyone without the patient’s explicit written consent. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. I am a mandated reporter of child abuse, and if a patient is imminently suicidal or homicidal, I have a duty to notify the appropriate parties in order to save the patient’s life and protect the public. But these scenarios are relatively uncommon.

Undoubtedly, confidentiality is an important, if not essential, therapeutic tool. Patients are far more likely to enter therapy, and to be completely honest and forthcoming in therapy, when they know that “what happens in therapy stays in therapy.” I am honored and humbled, though not necessarily surprised, when a patient tells me that I am the first person she has ever told about a particular trauma, event, thought, or feeling. A therapist’s office is a safe place in which a patient can express anything and everything without fear of judgment, alienation, or other negative repercussions. Through this vulnerability and brutal honesty comes an opportunity for growth and meaningful change.

However, confidentiality is not without its problems. For example, psychologists often struggle with decisions as to whether to disclose information about adolescent patients to their parents. On the one hand, parents have a legal right to obtain health care information regarding their child, and they are technically the “holders” of any privileged communication between their child and her therapist. On the other hand, adolescents can undoubtedly benefit from discussing certain personal issues with a nonjudgmental third party outside their family, and they are less likely to raise such issues with their therapist if they know that the information will get back to mom and dad.

I know of some psychologists who share very little with the parents of their adolescent patients. After all, they argue, the primary developmental tasks of adolescence include separation from family and establishment of an independent identity. These psychologists believe that they are respecting the adolescent’s burgeoning sense of identity by excluding parents from treatment. They also believe that they are nurturing the therapeutic relationship by refusing to disclose all but the most essential information to an adolescent’s parents. Many of these therapists believe that the parents are guilty of causing or contributing to their child’s problems, and thus are best kept out of the treatment picture. As a result, many parents of adolescent patients are relegated to the role of chauffeur. They drive their child to her appointments and pay for her treatment without ever knowing what is going on in those sessions. Imagine how disempowering it must feel for a parent to be relegated to such a role.

To be sure, psychologists who practice this way make many valid points. However, I have a different perspective on my role as a therapist and on the role confidentiality plays in my work with adolescent patients. Consequently, I approach the issue of confidentiality with adolescent patients differently. Empirical research has demonstrated, and my own clinical experience has confirmed, that adolescent treatment generally works best when parents are fully informed and actively involved, and I communicate this point to my adolescent patients and their parents at the start of our work together. I am relatively unconcerned when I meet an adolescent patient who lacks insight or motivation or who resists treatment. I am very concerned when the parents of an adolescent patient are unwilling, unmotivated, or unable to play an active role in their child’s treatment.

When I work with adolescents with relatively normal social or developmental concerns (e.g., grief, problems with friends, sexuality, stress management, body dissatisfaction), parents play an important, though relatively minor, role in treatment. In these cases, the work is primarily between the adolescent and me. Even so, I involve parents in the initial evaluation, treatment planning, and discharge planning; I provide them with empirical literature on their child’s problem and the treatment approach I am using; I provide them with guidance as to how they can support their child at home; and I invite them to call me or schedule an appointment with me at any time if they have questions or concerns about their child.

In my work with adolescents with mental illnesses, parents play a central role as indispensable members of the treatment team. I take an authoritative stance regarding my knowledge of, say, major depression or anorexia nervosa, while also maintaining humility by respecting parents’ judgment and intuition regarding their child. I may be the expert on mental health, but they are the experts on their child.

Adolescents who are struggling with serious mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, major depression, anorexia nervosa, and bulimia nervosa, require treatment which is more intensive and more comprehensive. These patients need their parents to play an active role in managing their symptoms and creating an environment which is conducive to recovery. In order for parents to do this, they need to be informed about their child’s symptoms and progress. While I certainly do not share everything a teenage patient says in therapy with her parents, I do provide her parents with the information they need in order to help her get better.

The parents of adolescents with mental illnesses are often overly stressed, worried, isolated, and confused. These parents need considerable support, encouragement, and guidance as they learn to cope with their child’s illness and support her through her recovery. This one of the reasons why I am so fond of family-based treatment: I get to empower the family to support the patient, drawing upon the parents’ intimate knowledge of and investment in their child. Instead of pulling the patient away from her family, I strengthen her natural support system, which makes intuitive sense to me. After all, therapy is time-limited. Family is forever.

Family members are also vital in preventing relapse, as they are generally the first people to notice a change in their child’s mood or behavior. Equipped with the right knowledge and skills, parents can intervene immediately and help to pull their child back from the brink of relapse, often preventing the need for future treatment.

Does involving family members in treatment damage my relationship with my adolescent patients? In the short term, it often does. Keep in mind, though, that some families bring their adolescents to me after an unsuccessful course of traditional individual therapy in which the patient had a very special, exclusive relationship with her therapist (who may have implicated her parents in the etiology of her problems) but made no meaningful progress whatsoever. My therapeutic relationship with adolescent patients is certainly important, but it is far less important than strengthening her relationship with her family and taking the necessary steps to help her recover. As adolescent patients progress through recovery and gain more insight, they gain trust in me and in their parents. They gain faith in the recovery process, and most of them are grateful for the fact that their parents and I worked collaboratively to help them. As much as they may resist it, adolescents need boundaries and limits, and they need adults to work together on their behalf.

By involving parents so heavily in an adolescent’s treatment, am I disrupting the processes of separation and individuation? In the short term, yes. I would argue, however, that cutting, starving oneself, engaging in unprotected sex, and throwing up after meals are not acceptable ways of exerting control or establishing identity. The supposition that a certain unhealthy behavior serves a valuable emotional or developmental purpose does not justify allowing that behavior to go unchecked. It is the mental illness which hinders adolescent development, not the treatment. Adolescents struggling with crippling depression or anxiety, erratic mood swings, self-injury, or life-threatening eating disorders are unlikely to blossom into well-adjusted, independent young adults without significant support. Empowering an adolescent’s parents to help her overcome a mental illness is ultimately very respectful of adolescent development – it allows the patient to recover within the safety and security of her natural environment so that she may one day live independently, unencumbered by mental illness.

For these reasons, my relationship with the parents is just as important as my relationship with the adolescent patient. Parents need to trust my judgment and treatment methods. They are, after all, entrusting me with their child’s health and bright future. I believe that I earn parents’ trust by maintaining open lines of communication between us, by providing them with empirically-sound literature on their child’s condition and the treatment approach we are taking, by respecting their parental instincts and taking seriously their experiences with their child, by supporting them emotionally, by absolving them of guilt and self-blame for their child’s disorder, and by empowering them to take constructive action.