The best treatment for teenagers struggling with anorexia nervosa is family therapy, not individual psychotherapy. Here’s why family therapy is a better treatment for a teen’s eating disorder than individual therapy is.
“Family therapy” occurs when parents of teenagers with anorexia nervosa help to interrupt or treat their children’s eating disorder. Family therapy is twice as effective as individual psychotherapy at helping teens overcome eating disorders, according to new research from the Stanford University School of Medicine, Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital and the University of Chicago.
“This research was desperately needed,” said James Lock, MD, PhD, one of the study’s lead authors and a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford. “Anorexia nervosa is a life-threatening illness, and it’s really remarkable how little information we have about how to treat it. There are serious cons to not knowing what to do.”
How Family Therapy Helps Treat Anorexia Nervosa in Teenagers
In family-based therapy, the psychologist teaches the patient’s parents to help ensure that their child eats enough, while preventing overexercise. In contrast, individual psychotherapy focuses on resolving the teen’s underlying anxiety and emotional problems, with only minimal involvement from the family.
“Although both treatments were helpful to a proportion of patients, this study strongly suggests that as first-line treatment, in general, family-based interventions are superior,” said Lock, who is also psychiatric director of the Comprehensive Eating Disorders Program at Packard Children’s.
Though individual psychotherapy is a better treatment for anorexia nervosa in some cases, family therapy is a more effective treatment in most cases. These doctors are now further analyzing the data to see if they can figure out how to identify which types of patients should be directed toward family versus individual therapy.
Why is Family Therapy a More Effective Treatment for Eating Disorders?
According to Lock, family therapy is “a more direct approach”, so it may be a more effective treatment. “Restrictive eating and overexercise contribute to anorexia,” he said. “If you disrupt the maintaining behaviors of anorexia and get the patients eating, you disrupt that sequence of thinking. The traction of the thinking itself becomes less.”
The family helps teens with anorexia or other eating disorders by disrupting their unhealthy thinking patterns. Changing thought processes is an effective treatment for anorexia.
Before this research, scientists thought that individual psychotherapy might be a better treatment for anorexia nervosa because it attempts to resolve the psychological problems that may underpin the disorder. “The interesting thing to me is that relapse was a lot greater in the individual psychotherapy group,” he said. “It suggests that the behavioral components of anorexia nervosa are very powerful at maintaining the disease.”
Teens with anorexia who received family therapy had to learn to eat in the context of their real life. Their treatment wasn’t separate from their family dynamics, which helps to make family therapy an effective way to treat this eating disorder.
Related Reading: Should You Tell Your Boyfriend About Your Eating Disorder?
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Resource: Stanford University Medical Center Press Release. “Family therapy for anorexia twice as effective as individual therapy, researchers find.”