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Should Parents Be Involved in Teenage Anorexia Treatment Programs?

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that causes an unhealthy loss of weight. Onset of the disorder most often coincides with the onset of puberty, putting teenagers at the highest risk of developing anorexia. In fact, statistics reveal anorexia nervosa is the third most common chronic illness among adolescents. Driven by an intense fear of gaining weight, teens will avoid eating, follow dangerous crash diets, or exercise for hours on end just to burn off unwanted calories.

Traditional Treatment Methods

In a professional treatment setting, the main goals are to restore physical health, restore normal body weight, and establish healthy eating habits. Traditional approaches include:

  • A short hospital stay, transition to in-patient or day treatment program
  • Multiple forms of talk therapy
  • Medications such as antidepressants, antipsychotics, and mood stabilizers
  • In the past, parents haven’t played a key role in the rehabilitation process, leaving traditional modalities with a disappointing 50 percent success rate.

The Maudsley Method

Created during the 1980s by a group of experts at the Maudsley Hospital in South London, the Maudsley method, also known as family-based therapy, puts parents in charge of their children’s eating habits for a period of time. With continued success, children are eventually allowed to take back the reins.

  • Phase I: The focus remains on restoring a healthy body weight, with parents controlling everything their children eat. Particular attention is placed on reversing the unhealthiest effects of anorexia.
  • Phase II: Parents slowly begin to let their children control food intake, closely monitoring for signs of relapsing into old habits.
  • Phase III: This phase begins when teens are no longer restricting food or food intake. During this time, teens learn life-long strategies for managing anorexia. They will also identify important psychological and genetic factors related to the eating disorder.

Targeted Treatment for Anorexia

The Maudsley method was initially developed for adolescent anorexia nervosa, but has been adapted to treat children, adolescents, and young adults with a wider range of eating disorders. The key to this specialized technique is making sure the patients are still young enough to allow parents total control over eating habits.

It’s important to understand that family-based therapy may not work for every family. The program requires an enormous amount of dedication and time from parents. For example, during the first two weeks of therapy, teenagers don’t attend school. At least one parent must be present on a 24/7 basis, feeding and closely observing their children. As the program progresses, parents will find more flexibility.

Published Maudsley Information

  • A 2010 study published in JAMA Psychiatry compared the Maudsley method to adolescent-focused talk therapy. Researchers found that the two had similar success rates at the end of treatment, but the Maudsley method had better remission rates 6 and 12 months post-treatment.
  • In 2006, successful journalist Harriet Brown bravely spoke to the New York Times, detailing her daughter’s battle with anorexia and the family’s success using the Maudsley method. Afterward, she launched Maudsley Parents, a site that provides information about the method.
  • A study published in 2000 found 75 percent of those using family-based therapy to treat anorexia have good outcomes, 15 percent an intermediate outcome, and 10 percent have a poor outcome.

Learn more about treatment options for eating disorders.

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