Parental direction works, but don’t expect your kid to be happy about it: Research on The Family Meal in FBT

Slide1Parents charged with helping their children to recover in Family-Based Treatment often wonder 1) how to actually get their children to eat and 2) whether they will harm their children or the parent-child relationship by requiring them to eat. A recent study addressed these concerns by looking at the family meal.               

How do parents of adolescent patients with anorexia nervosa interact with their child at mealtimes? A study of parental strategies used in the family meal session of family-based treatment

Hannah J. White BSc (Hons), Emma Haycraft PhD,*, Sloane Madden MD, Paul Rhodes PhD, Jane Miskovic-Wheatley DCP/MSc, Andrew Wallis MFAMTher, Michael Kohn MD and Caroline Meyer PhD (Article first published online: 26 JUN 2014)

The above study in the International Journal of Eating Disorders looked at the family meal in Family-Based Treatment (FBT), the best-researched outpatient treatment for adolescent anorexia. In FBT, the family plays a central role in treatment. Parents take responsibility for weight restoration and interruption of eating disorder behaviors, and family meals are an essential part of this process. Typically the second session of Family-Based Treatment is a family meal in which the family brings a picnic meal to the therapist’s office. The goal of the session is for the therapist to empower the parents to get their child with anorexia to eat one bite more than the child was prepared to eat.

The strategies used during mealtimes by parents of adolescents with anorexia have not been previously documented. Some believe that the eating habits of these adolescents have regressed and that the adolescents should be viewed as younger children who need more feeding assistance from their parents. Thus, parental strategies used to encourage eating would be similar to the strategies used by parents of younger children with and without feeding problems, which have been studied: these parents have been noted to use both encouragement and pressure to eat. Little is known about the response of adolescents with anorexia to their parents’ attempts to get them to eat.

The purpose of this study was to examine the strategies used by parents and the results. The study included 21 families with children between the ages of 12 and 18 who were undergoing FBT for adolescent anorexia.

The main aims of the study were:

1)   to identify mealtime strategies used by parents during the family meal session of FBT.

2)   to explore the relationships between these strategies and parental ‘success’ in encouraging eating.

3)   to explore the relationships between these strategies and their results with the emotional tone of the mealtime.

While this research was conducted in an artificial setting – a therapist’s office and in the presence of the therapist – the findings should be applicable to family meals occurring in the home.

Specifically, the researchers found:

1)   parents used a variety of strategies to prompt the child to eat: direct eating prompts (e.g., “You’ve got to eat all your eggs” or “Pick it up and eat it”), non-direct eating prompts (e.g. “Keep going” or “Why don’t you eat some more pasta?”), physical prompts (e.g., pushing a plate of food towards the adolescent), autonomous comments (e.g., “Do you want another one?” or “Which one do you want?”) and information provision (e.g., “Your body needs the calcium” or “This will make your bones strong”).

2)   direct, non-direct, and physical prompts were more successful in getting adolescents to eat than providing information about the food or offering food-related choices to the adolescent.

3)   in general, the more the parents prompted the child to eat and the more successful they were, the more negative the adolescents became. It makes sense that attempts to encourage eating, which contradict the anorexic tendencies, would cause psychological distress and a more negative emotional tone.

The authors conclude “It is interesting that a behavioral focus on eating (i.e., verbal and physical prompting) was associated with parental success as opposed to other strategies such as offering choices to the adolescent or consequences. This indicates that parents implementing a direct focus on food may be central to eating behavior and supports the emphasis on behavioral change rather than insight which is central to FBT.”

Keeping in mind that this is only one small study, the results are consistent with my observations of family meals in my practice and reports from parents refeeding their adolescents:

  1. parents need to directly prompt or pressure their child with anorexia to eat.
  2. offering choices and providing information is generally less effective in getting children with anorexia to eat.
  3. the more the parents pressure the child and the more the child eats, the more negative and upset the child becomes.

This study highlights the paradox parents face in implementing FBT. When a child is in distress, the parental instinct is to try to soothe them. Intentionally upsetting the child runs counter to a parent’s nature. However, for children with anorexia, food is medicine. The best measure of the parent’s success in FBT is the amount of food consumed. Parents should expect that their child will have a negative reaction to both pressure to eat and the eating itself. This negativity is not a sign of failure, but a reaction to a treatment that is working.

While these interactions often lead to more short-term conflict and distress, parents must persist and weather the storm in order to support their child’s recovery.  Over time, this persistence will challenge the anorexia and encourage change and recovery.