The Importance of Family System Work When Treating an Adolescent with an Eating Disorder

Treating an Adolescent with an Eating Disorder

When a child struggles with an eating disorder, it has a major impact on the entire family. Daily routines as well as coping and problem-solving behaviors are all negatively affected. It can seem as if the easiest things become overwhelming; just getting up for school on time involves frustration and fighting. In addition, families dealing with an eating disorder often say that it feels as if time stands still and that everything in their lives has come to focus on the eating disorder.

Research shows that a non-blaming approach to treatment in which the family is seen not as the cause of the problem but rather as a resource to support the adolescent in the recovery process is recommended. Additionally, working within the family system helps members understand the evolution of the family dynamics in relation to the development of the eating disorder. Think of it this way, by openly identifying and discussing these family dynamics, insight and learning can happen and change can be created. Family system work creates significant improvement and positive changes in terms of both the individual and family functioning.

As part of the therapeutic work, families benefit from exploring how they became caught up in the eating disorder. When family members are able to step back from the disorder and identify and practice using their strengths, they gain perspective and are able to discover solutions to their situation.

At The Meadows Ranch, family members are seen as partners in the recovery process. Let me emphasize that families are part of the solution. As the adolescent returns to the family system after treatment, clear expectations and family rules are a necessary part of the recovery process. Parents must “parent” the adolescent and avoid “parenting” the eating disorder. It is important to have discussions surrounding this when families are calm and empowered versus anxious and reactionary. Families can accomplish this with improved communication skills, clear expectations, and with the involvement of professionals.

Family system work is vital in the recovery process for adolescents with eating disorders. Although this work can involve many different people, perspectives, and experiences, healing can occur, understanding can be developed, and families can embrace recovery with elegance, dignity, resilience, and solidarity.

By Gejia Capasso L.P.C., Family Therapist, The Meadows Ranch