To overcome teen eating disorders, get the family involved

New research reveals that teenagers suffering from anorexia need a helping hand from their families. In a large-scale study published on October 4 in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry, teenagers with the eating disorder showed better recovery after receiving family therapy as opposed to individual counseling - results which countered previously held beliefs about treating the disease.

"For a really long time, parents have been seen as being an obstacle to treatment," said study researcher James Lock, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, in an interview with Live Science, a news website covering developments in science, health, and the environment. "Family-based treatment and the effectiveness that it has shown in this study suggests that families really are a resource to these kids, and they really should be included in the care of their children." 

Lock and his team recruited 121 patients, ages 12 to 18, with anorexia and randomly assigned them to either individual- or family-based therapy for one year. The team evaluated subjects before treatment, at the six-month point, and one year after the start of treatment. Recovery was based on whether or not the subject's weight was at least 95 percent of their expected body weight and they had normal scores on a psychiatric test designed to assess attitudes toward eating.

Results showed that the percentage of patients considered fully recovered was twice as high for the family-based treatment as for the individual treatment after six months and a year. Patients in the family-based therapy were also less likely to relapse, with only 10 percent falling back into their anorexia, compared with 40 percent of patients in the individual therapy.

Lock suggested that the reason might be that family-based therapy focuses more on changing behaviors, while the type of individual therapy used in this study focused more on the emotional aspects of the condition. "The person with anorexia often does not want or believe they should make changes," he said. "They like what they're doing, so it's hard for them to make changes, it's hard for them to see the need for it. Parents can see the need for it and therefore that can really help."

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