Family Therapy is Cutting Edge Treatment for a Family Disease
Monday, May 10, 2010

By: Abigail Natenshon, MA, LCSW, GCFP

Eating disorders are family diseases.

  •  When young children, teens and young adults who live at home become afflicted with an eating disorder, everybody who comes in contact with that individual suffers - including parents, siblings and extended family.
  •  Parents tend to be the primary diagnosticians of an eating disorder in their child. This is because eating disorders predominantly show up around kitchen tables, and in family bathrooms, rarely in the doctor’s office. In addition, their presence is typically silent in laboratory tests.
  •  Recovery too, happens at home, over time, alongside parents and siblings, throughout the course of daily living; this is particularly the case in the face of the limited services provided through insurance coverage these days. Patients typically spend 45 minutes a week with their therapist or doctor. For the rest, 24/7, kids “live” their recovery at home, and at school.
  •  In research carried out at the Maudsley Hospital of London England, it has been proven that family treatment is more effective than individual psychotherapy for anorexics living at home who have been ill for less than 3 years.
  •  The nature of parental involvement will vary widely with the age and needs of the child, the skills and capacities of the parent, and the nature and quality of the ever-changing parent/child CONNECTION.

Family Therapy is the most effective way to treat everyone’s needs.

Parents and siblings are deeply affected by the presence of an eating disorder within the family system. Family members need an outlet to understand the disease and recovery processes, a forum to communicate their concerns and needs with the patient and with each other, and the opportunity to learn how best to support the recovery process. They often need personal support and bolstering in the face of what typically tends to be an extended, convoluted and at times discouraging recovery process for the afflicted individual. Family therapy provides that vehicle.

The individual child's efforts to make recovery changes are facilitated and enhanced not only by a family that understands the recovery process, but by family members who make their own parallel personal changes to accommodate the needs and requirements of supporting the changing child within the family system.

Eating disorder psychotherapists are responsible to "grow" the relationship between parent and child, for that is where the greatest and most effective capacity for healing lies. Therapists must demonstrate respect for the power of the family system in eradicating (or possibly sustaining) disease.

The potential for the family unit to bring about constructive change is far greater than the sum of its parts. Kids get far better, far faster when families can be involved in constructive ways. Not only that, kids who learn to function better with family members carry these valuable interpersonal skills over into their other relationships as well, and life gets to be a healthier, happier place to be.

Appropriate parental involvement is an enhancement to recovery, despite the warnings of misguided health professionals who may imply that eating disorders are caused by parental over-involvement in their children's lives. Kids need their parents now more than ever, because through developing an eating disorder, they have temporarily lost their own capacity for self-regulation and care. Successful bonding lies at the very foundation of an effective separation process. Privacy rights for the patient cease to be a concern when the therapist brings patient and family together to communicate and share information in each other’s presence.

Loving one’s child is not enough. Parents need to act on the knowledge they acquire. Parental involvement may vary from providing:

  •  On-going and unconditional support day in, day out.
  •  Nutritious meals which they prepare and sit down to eat together with the child.
  •  The monitoring of food intake and symptom management.
  •  Involvement in family treatment to support the child and recovery process and to resolve underlying emotional issues that may be driving the dysfunction.
Author : Abigail H. Natenshon LCSW
A foremost expert in the treatment of eating disorders, Abigail H. Natenshon, MA, LCSW, GCFP is a psychotherapist who has specialized in the treatment of children, young adults and their families for the past 40 years. The author of When Your Child Has An Eating Disorder: A Step-by-Step Workbook for Parents and Other Caregivers and Doing What Works: an Integrative System for the Treatment of Eating Disorders from Diagnosis to Recovery, Natenshon is the founder and director of Eating Disorder Specialists of Illinois: A Clinic Without Walls. You can learn more about Abigail H. Natenshon, MA, LCSW, GCFP here on the Directory.