Last week, I blogged about navigating Phase II of Maudsley Family-Based Treatment (FBT). Today I present a roadmap for Phase III, which is equal to Phase II in its importance as well as its ambiguity.
A common but ill-informed criticism of FBT is that it only addresses eating and weight. This is a misconception. Phase I focuses on establishing normal eating habits and restoring normal weight and Phase II focuses on helping the patient eat on her own in an age-appropriate way, but Phase III has nothing to do with food or weight at all. A wonderful thing about FBT is that the life-threatening eating disordered behaviors are treated first, which frees up the therapist, the patient, and the family to focus on any remaining issues in Phase III.
The goal of Phase III is establishing a healthy adolescent identity. An eating disorder engulfs an adolescent’s identity, creates extreme stress for the entire family, and strains the relationships between family members. Phase III is about restoring healthy, age-appropriate family relationships and returning the adolescent to normal life. Anything that stands in the way of these goals must be dealt with in order for the patient to recover fully.
Phase III begins when the patient is able to eat normally, with age-appropriate independence, while maintaining a healthy weight and not engaging in any eating disorder behaviors. Essentially, once all food issues have been resolved, the patient is ready for Phase III.
The authors of the FBT manual (Locke & Le Grange, 2001) advise that Phase III entails a handful of sessions scheduled several weeks apart. In my clinical experience, many patients do quite well with just a few sessions in Phase III, but others continue to struggle with anxiety, depression, body image, perfectionism, or other problems. Therefore, I offer to provide patients and families with an extended version of Phase III when I believe it is warranted. Length of illness, severity of illness, and co-morbid conditions all influence whether a patient may benefit from more treatment than the FBT manual prescribes.
In my practice, Phase III typically addresses the following issues:
1.) Returning the patient to normal development.
An eating disorder can interrupt normal adolescent development. Often, when a patient enters Phase III, she is at the same developmental level as when the illness first began. Phase III entails helping the patient develop the maturity and social-emotional skills that were lost as a casualty of ED. Depending on the age of the patient, this may entail returning to sports or other activities, getting a driver’s license, going out with friends, dating, returning to college, or developing new hobbies and interests.
2.) Re-establishing healthy relationships amongst family members.
An eating disorder can wreak havoc on family life. It is not uncommon for spouses to have major marital conflict emerge as a result of ED. Siblings may feel neglected by their parents or jealous of the patient. The patient and her parents may develop a codependent relationship over the course of treatment, which can be advantageous in the first two phases, but must be corrected in Phase III so that the patient and parent can each return to their own lives. Healthy boundaries amongst family members can be damaged by ED, and it is crucial for these boundaries to be re-established at the end of treatment.
3.) Addressing any remaining psychological symptoms of the eating disorder.
There are numerous psychological symptoms related to an eating disorder. For example, body dysmorphia, perfectionism, poor self-esteem, anxiety, and cognitive rigidity may predispose people to AN and perpetuate the illness once it has begun. For many patients, these symptoms abate or resolve on their own during the first two phases. For many others, however, targeted treatment is needed at this phase. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can be helpful in this regard.
4.) Working through the trauma of experiencing an eating disorder.
While many treatment programs address traumatic experiences that precipitated an eating disorder, few acknowledge that the experience of having eating disorder is itself very traumatic. Caring for a child with an eating disorder can be almost as traumatic as experiencing one. In many cases, the patient or her parents (or both) experience post-traumatic stress reactions at this point, such as disturbing nightmares, intrusive memories, and avoidance of stimuli associated with the eating disorder.
It is not uncommon for parents, drained and burnt out from the exhausting work of Phase I and Phase II, to have their own breakdowns at this point. Their child is well enough that they are no longer operating in crisis mode and they have some room to breathe. Once the survival instinct is no longer employed on a constant basis, parents have permission to experience their own reactions. Some parents fall into a depression; others feel disillusioned and cynical; still others suffer from extreme anxiety or lash out in anger. These are all normal, expected reactions to the trauma of almost losing a child. It is important for parents to get their own therapeutic support at this juncture if needed.
5.) Addressing grief.
Another often neglected aspect of eating disorder treatment is grieving what the eating disorder has taken. Not all patients and families experience this grief, but some do. I believe that when there is grief associated with the eating disorder, it should be discussed openly and addressed as part of the healing process. Patients often lose friends to their illness. They may have to take a hiatus from their favorite sport, or give it up altogether. Some patients miss a semester of school. Most are isolated from society for some time. At this stage, patients can feel the pain and injustice of losing a piece of their youth irretrievably.
Some parents may mourn the loss of their child’s innocence. They mourn the loss of life as they knew it. Many parents take time off from work and become isolated from their social circle as they help their child recover. Some parents mourn the loss of dreams they once had for their child which have been thwarted by ED.
No one emerges from the hell of an eating disorder unscathed. That said, some people are able to close that chapter in their lives and move forward, whereas others remain trapped by anger, sadness, or bitterness. It is important for patients and parents to work through their grief so that they can move forward in a life unencumbered by ED.
6.) Relapse prevention.
It is important for the patient and her parents to be aware of possible signs of impending relapse and to know what to do if these signs emerge. I find it very useful to discharge patients with a written relapse prevention plan which I have developed in collaboration with the patient and family.
7.) Evaluating the patient for co-morbid conditions.
Many patients with eating disorders experience co-morbid psychiatric conditions. Patients who continue to struggle with emotional or behavioral problems after the eating disorder has been resolved should be evaluated to determine whether they suffer from a comorbid disorder. The most common comorbid disorders are the anxiety disorders (including OCD, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, PTSD, and social anxiety disorder), followed closely by mood disorders (depression and bipolar disorder). Other comorbid conditions may include autism spectrum disorders (such as Asperger’s), ADHD, substance abuse, and personality disorders.
8.) Getting the patient appropriate treatment for co-morbid conditions.
If the patient does indeed suffer from a co-morbid condition, it is important for her to get treatment for it. Treatment for a co-morbid disorder may include individual therapy, psychotropic medication, or a combination thereof. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in particular has been found to help many people recover from anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and numerous other conditions.