This Halloween, Serve Candy to Your Teen in Recovery

A Family-Based Treatment (FBT)-approach

Fear FoodFor teens with eating disorders, Halloween can be scary for the wrong reason: the candy! Most teens with eating disorders are only willing to eat a restricted range of foods. Expanding this range is an important goal of treatment, with the reintroduction of fear foods being a key step. Candy tends to be high on the fear food lists of many teens.

Halloween presents an ideal opportunity.

A Taste of Recovery

Most teens in America are excited for Halloween and its bounty of candy. By incorporating some candy during your teen’s Halloween week you can help them approximate the lives of teens who do not have eating disorders. This step can give them a taste of the full life you want for them—a life where they are unencumbered by food restrictions, a life where they can enjoy all foods, a life where they can travel the world confident that they will easily be able to meet their nutritional needs, and a life where they won’t feel the need to shun social events for fear of facing the foods there.

I know that I’m painting a beautiful picture and that this is easier said than done. Teens with eating disorders will deny that the disorder is driving their food preferences. Instead, they claim they simply don’t like candy anymore. Or that candy was the preference of a child and since then their palates have matured. But don’t believe them—you have crucial parental memory and knowledge. You know which foods your teen actually liked a few years back. You also probably know the foods on which he or she binged if they binged. And it is not credible that any teen really hates all candy!

Especially if your teen had a great many fear foods, you may already have experience reintroducing some of them. But once meals start going more smoothly, some weight has been restored, and binges and purges have subsided, many parents are reluctant to push further. Why rock the boat when your teen seems to be doing well? You may be wondering: Is candy really necessary?

In fact, this Halloween is exactly the right time to introduce candy.

Exposure

It is much easier to introduce fear foods before your teen is completely independent in their eating. Right now, you are still overseeing meals and your teen does not yet have their independent life back. Pushing the issue of fear foods becomes more challenging when your teen has regained most of their freedom.

When you introduce fear foods to your teen, you will probably feel anxious. Your teen will too. You may even feel like you are going back a step. This is how exposure works—it is supposed to raise your teen’s anxiety. When your teen avoids these fear foods, their anxiety decreases, reinforcing the avoidant behavior and justifying the anxiety response. This perpetuates both the emotion and the behavior. But the food is not truly dangerous—if the teen were to eat the food, they would learn that nothing catastrophic happens. In exposure, the teen is required to eat the food, and the anxiety response shows itself to be baseless. With repeated exposure, the brain habituates, learns that the food is not harmful, and loses the anxiety response.

Exposure works through repetition over a sustained period of time—not all at once. It’s likely that each food on your teen’s feared list will need to be presented several times before the thought of eating it no longer causes extreme anxiety.

You may feel that requiring your teen to eat candy is extreme. However, remember: the healthy part of your teen probably wants to eat candy, but the eating disorder would beat them up if they ate it willingly. By requiring your teen to eat candy, you are actually granting your teen permission to eat it—permission they are unable to grant themselves. After recovery, many teens report that they really wanted the fear food but were too afraid—it was only when their parents made them eat it that they were able to.

And I would argue that fearlessness in the face of candy is important for your child. So be brave about facing potentially increased resistance by your teen and model facing your own fear.

Here’s How to Incorporate Candy During Halloween:

  1. Choose a few types of candy based on your teen’s preferences about three years before they developed their eating disorder. (If you can’t remember, ask one of their siblings or just pick a few options, maybe one chocolate-based and a non-chocolate alternative.) Make your choice based on providing your teen with the typical American teen experience. (American teens will typically collect a lot of candy on Halloween, have a few pieces that night, and then have candy as snacks a few times during the following week.)
  2. You may choose to tell your teen about the candy ahead of time or not. Some families find that telling teens about exposure to fear foods ahead of time is helpful; other families find that it is better to just present a fear food without warning. But note that you are not required to ask their permission; FBT is a parent-driven treatment.
  3. Serve a single serving of candy during dessert or snack a few times during the week of Halloween. Plan carefully and be thoughtful. Do this with the same resolve that you use when you serve them any starches or proteins. You may want to introduce the candy on a day when you feel more confident, will have more time to manage potential resistance, or can be sure a second caregiver will be present. You may not want to present candy, or any fear food, before an event that you are not willing to miss in case you encounter an extreme reaction.
  4. If your teen binges or purges, make sure to sit with them for an hour after they eat the candy.
  5. Plan for what will happen if your teen refuses to eat the candy. For example, will you offer something else instead and try the candy again tomorrow? Offer a reward for eating the candy? Create a consequence for noncompletion? Whatever you decide, be consistent and follow through.

If you do this-this year, there is a good chance that by next Halloween your teen will be eating candy independently!

Is the (Eating Disorder) Treatment Your Child is Getting FBT?

When new families talk to me about Family-Based Treatment (FBT), I often find that they are confused about what it is and what it isn’t.

FBT is a type of evidence-based treatment for adolescent eating disorders. This treatment was developed at the Maudsley Hospital in London in the 1970s and 1980s; Doctors Lock and Le Grange manualized it into its current form in 2001. Because of its name, FBT is often confused with more general “family therapy.” Be careful, because these are not the same thing—while both involve the family, FBT is a very specific, behaviorally-focused therapy.

While a treatment that includes some elements of FBT—but falls short of the full manualized treatment—may work for some eating disorder cases, it may not work for more difficult cases. When FBT doesn’t work it is important to know whether the child has had an adequate course of the true treatment in its evidence-based form. This can be tricky—in the field of psychotherapy, most therapists identify as eclectic, meaning they adhere to no single therapeutic orientation but combine techniques from several (just scroll through any Psychology Today therapist profile to get a taste for how many different theoretical approaches most therapists endorse). We don’t yet know which elements of FBT are critical to its efficacy and make it such a successful treatment. This would take expensive dismantling studies in which different partial treatments are tested against each other. Except for studies documenting a separated FBT (where only the parents attend sessions), no such study has been cited in the literature. Until we have good evidence that suggests otherwise, treatments that stay true to the original, already-tested treatments are the safest bet.

I once worked with a patient with panic disorder who had had previous treatment. He told me that his previous therapist had conducted cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), widely accepted as the best evidence-based treatment for panic disorder. When I dug deeper, I found that his therapy had included no exposure to the sensations of panic—considered to be the core element of CBT treatment for panic disorder.  Instead, the treatment had focused on discussing his anxiety thoughts—a very different protocol. From this experience I learned to inquire carefully about the treatment my patients have previously received before accepting that it cannot work for them.

So it is with Family-Based Treatment. Sometimes parents tell me that they think they tried FBT but are not sure. If your child was treated in an academic center, it’s more likely they got the evidence-based treatment of FBT in its full form. However, some parents who tell me that FBT didn’t work also tell me:

  • They did FBT on their own, with no therapeutic support
  • They had meals with their child, but that the therapist met primarily with the adolescent alone
  • They didn’t supervise all meals because their child resisted it. 

In each of these situations, it is obvious to me that the treatment is not what I would consider FBT. And while it is true that including some aspects of FBT or even a “watered down” FBT may be better than no FBT or parent inclusion at all, it’s important to know whether your child had the real thing or not, especially if they end up needing more or different treatment.

Often, parents who tell me they struggled with renourishing a child on their own find that things go much better once they started working with me or another therapist. That’s not to say that parents should never try to renourish a teen on their own—just that supporting a child with an eating disorder is extremely hard work and best done with the support and guidance of a professional at their side.

Signs Your Child Received FBT

Accordingly, I created the checklist below for parents to determine whether the treatment their child received (or is receiving) is really FBT. To how many of the following statements can you answer “YES” (the more the better)?

  • My therapist received training through the Training Institute for Child and Adolescent Eating Disorders.
    • The basic training is a 2-day workshop. Have they attended one?
    • Have they received or are they receiving clinical consultation or supervision by a staff member of the institute?
    • Are they certified in FBT by the Training Institute (meaning they have completed the 2-day training and received 25 hours of consultation by a staff member around their treatment of 5 patients)?
  • My therapist owns, seems familiar with, and refers to the FBT treatment manual.
  • My therapist refers to and acknowledges the three phases of FBT:
    • Phase 1 —full parental control
    • Phase 2 — a gradual return of control to the teen
    • Phase 3 —establishing healthy independence
  • My therapist is familiar with the work of Drs. James Lock and Daniel Le Grange, developers of the FBT treatment.
  • My therapist adheres to the five principles of FBT:
    • I was specifically told I was responsible for restoring my teen nutritionally and interrupting behaviors that interfere with recovery (including bingeing, purging, and overexercise). I was specifically told I was responsible for planning, preparing, serving, and supervising all meals.
    • I was told we don’t know for sure what causes an eating disorder and it doesn’t matter.
    • Initial attention of treatment focused solely on restoring health including weight gain and stopping eating disorder behaviors.
    • Rather than being given prescriptive tasks, I was empowered to play an active role and to discover those strategies that worked best for my family and the child whom I know best.
    • I was taught to externalize the illness and see it as an outside force that has hijacked my child, threatens his or her life, and makes my child do things he or she wouldn’t normally do. My child did not choose the eating disorder.
  • I have had a family meal at the therapist’s office.
  • My therapist spends most of the time with the full family, meeting only briefly with the adolescent alone at the beginning of the session (or in the case of “separated FBT,” all of the time with parents).
  • My therapist or another member of the treatment team tracks my child’s weight and gives me feedback after every weigh-in on how he or she is doing.
  • I was specifically told I am responsible for supervising all meals and snacks to ensure completion. If purging has been a problem, I was told to supervise the child after eating to prevent purging.
  • If my child has been exercising excessively, I was told to prevent this.
  • After weight was restored and bingeing and purging and other behaviors had ceased, my therapist guided me in gradually returning my teen control over their own eating.
  • I was told it was important to be direct with my teen about eating adequate amounts of food.
  • My therapist discusses the importance of both “state” and weight to recovery—meaning my therapist explains that weight recovery is a step towards psychological recovery, but not an end goal in itself.

Dead giveaways your child did not get FBT

Below are some indicators that your child might not have “gotten FBT” and might be receiving some conflicting messages:

  • I have been told that we, the parents, had caused the eating disorder.
  • My therapist spends the majority of therapy time alone with the teen.
  • My therapist spends a lot of time talking about the past and reasons my child wanted, needed, or otherwise developed the disorder.
  • A dietitian has met alone with my teen and given him or her nutritional recommendations.
  • My child has been given a meal plan.
  • I have been told that it is an option to not supervise all meals or prevent all purging.
  • The FBT therapist has provided individual CBT, DBT, or ACT with the teen during the weight restoration phase.
  • I have been told from the start of treatment to “not be the food police” (in FBT, this might happen toward the end of treatment, or in Phase 2 with an older teen).
  • My child has been in charge of making his or her own meals from the outset of treatment.

Summary

In conclusion, FBT has been proven to be the most effective treatment for adolescents in clinical trials. That said, not every treatment works for everyone. In my opinion, it is best to start with something that has a backing and then try something else if that doesn’t work. When you have sought out an evidence-based treatment, it’s important to make sure you’re getting the treatment in its researched form.