The holidays are a challenging time to navigate for most people. The holidays are even more challenging for those who struggle with their relationship with food. As we prepare for the holiday feasts and festivities, there are a few things to consider, especially when you have a child or other loved one with an eating disorder. While this list is not all-encompassing, it can serve as a thoughtful reminder to be aware of the challenges others may face this holiday season and some strategies to support them.
Things to Do
Plan ahead. With the holiday season ahead of us, the best thing we can do to support someone struggling with an eating disorder is to plan ahead. Planning ahead includes identifying what could be triggering for your child and developing strategies to deal with these triggers appropriately. Here are some common holiday triggers to consider: buffet-style eating and a surplus or different types of food, expectations from others, comments about food choices and appearance, comments about being overly full or eating too much, fasting for religious reasons, etc. One of the best ways to plan ahead is to talk to your child about what they are most worried about for the upcoming holidays.
Talk about the holidays and traditions that have been triggering in the past. Part of planning ahead is knowing and understanding what your child is anticipating to be anxiety-provoking. One way to identify potential triggers is to ask what was challenging about the holiday in previous years. While your child may be doing better or even be in recovery, holidays pose many challenges that your child may not have practiced in treatment yet. If any specific holiday foods are triggering, this is an excellent time to start practicing with these foods. Your child’s therapist or dietitian can help plan exposures to fear foods.
Ask what support your child needs from you or others. What does your child anticipate needing from you during the holiday season? The conversation about support is part of planning ahead. Some ways you can help support your child include: steering conversations away from talking about food and appearance, making a plate for them (if that help is needed), helping with coping skills before or after meals (discussed later), etc.
Model appropriate eating. While there may be adults and other children around the dinner table who are engaging in dieting or disordered eating, having your child have a good role model will be helpful. Appropriate eating does not mean you have to eat exactly what your child is eating. Appropriate eating means honoring your hunger and fullness cues, choosing a variety of foods, and demonstrating enjoyment of your meal.
Provide distraction or additional support during or after meals. As discussed above, one of the most supportive things you can do is help your child cope effectively. It can be helpful to ask your child what coping skills work best and practice these skills before the holidays. Rather than rushing from one activity to the next, provide time for your child to regulate their emotions. Distraction can take many forms, so you can get creative and plan for things that will engage your child. Some of the best distractions include things that require extra mental effort, such as a game of Scrabble or Bananagrams. Other distractions include watching movies or TV, playing with the family pet, board games, arts/crafts, etc.
Prepare other family members (and set up a family session if possible). Recovery takes the support of many people. While you, as a parent, may know the most about your child’s eating disorder and how to best support them, having others learn how to support your child can be helpful. Preparing other family members can include setting boundaries with specific conversational topics, such as diets and the appearance of others. It can also involve having others help support your child during or after meals or navigating other conversations that may be anxiety-provoking for your child. If your child is in treatment, this is a great time to request a family session to help plan ahead for the holidays and elicit extra support.
Have conversations when you notice eating disorder behavior. The holidays are challenging. You will likely notice increased anxiety or some eating-disordered behavior. While it may feel overwhelming to discuss these behaviors with your child in the moment, it is important to address them. To discuss behavior you are noticing, you should talk to your child away from the meal or anxiety-inducing situation (i.e., the meal, conversation, person, etc.) and then discuss what you are noticing and ask how you can help support them (or suggest a coping skill if your child is overwhelmed).
Things to Avoid Doing
Don’t make comments about appearance. It is never helpful to comment on your child’s appearance or the appearance of others. During this time of recovery, your child is likely hyper-fixated on their appearance and is likely engaging in social comparison more frequently. Due to the preoccupation with thoughts about body weight and shape, it is best to steer the conversation away from how someone looks. Instead of discussing appearance, you can model interest in other characteristics such as hobbies, school or work, or other passions of the person.
Don’t make negative comments about food or food choices. It can feel natural to say things like “I am so full,” “I overate,” “I can’t believe I had another piece of pie,” and other comments after eating. However, your child is listening and likely internalizing comments like this. It is important to note that when comments like this slip, you can correct them. If you or anyone else makes a comment like this, you can say something like, “while I am full, I enjoyed my meal,” or change your narrative to something more neutral.
Don’t expect your child to eat or try everything. While your child may be doing better or be in recovery, the holidays or certain food served at the holidays are likely triggering. Your child should still eat their meal plan, but they should not be expected to try everything. Part of planning ahead can include discussing what their plate should look like based on their meal plan. If your child needs to eat before or away from the guests, arrange for that to happen to ensure they complete the meal.
Your child should still follow their meal plan (i.e., 3 meals and 3 snacks). While some people engage in restriction before a holiday meal, your child should still eat all meals and snacks as indicated by their meal plan. It can be helpful to discuss and meal plan with your child’s therapist and dietitian before the holidays.
This holiday may not go perfectly. Spend time identifying what went well, and times you noticed that they used coping skills.
Holidays are stressful for most people. As a parent of a child with an eating disorder, ensure you also take time to engage in self-care.
When I am working as the Family-Based Treatment (FBT) therapist for a teen in recovery, their parents will often ask whether the teen should also see a therapist individually. Unlike other therapy situations, in FBT there is no expectation that there is both an individual therapist and a family therapist. It’s there in the name: “Family-Based Treatment.” FBT is not just “family therapy” aimed at solving family problems—it is a specific, comprehensive, evidence-based treatment. In fact, the developers state that they called it Family-Based Treatment when they were manualizing the approach because they wanted to distinguish it from being viewed as a type of family therapy.
As I have stated elsewhere, I think most teens who receive FBT will never need individual therapy for an eating disorder. I actively discourage the addition of an individual therapist in Phase 1 (nutritional rehabilitation). When we arrive at Phase 2 (handing back of control to the teen), we can better assess which issues remain unresolved with weight restoration. This is the point at which the adolescent is likely to be more receptive and able to benefit from individual therapy. Even here, I think additional therapy is only needed when there is a specific additional diagnosis or specific problem. Adding an individual therapist when one is not needed adds risk and can even undermine the FBT.
Among the reasons I discourage adding an individual therapist in Phase 1 is that the work of the parents can be undermined by an individual therapist who either does not believe in or support FBT. Additionally, in one case series of families with “failed FBT”, does not believe in or support FBT. Additionally, in one case series of families with “failed FBT” teens later admitted asking for individual therapy as a deliberate strategy to exclude their parents and reduce the pressure for weight gain. I have observed teens who ask for individual therapists in Phase 1 and by Phase 2 no longer make such a request.
Reasons parents sometimes cite for wanting their teen to have an individual therapist include processing the underlying issue and having someone to listen. I do not think these are valid reasons for adding an individual therapist during Phase 1, given the risks that it could deflect from the focus on nutritional restoration. And, as discussed elsewhere, there is not usually an underlying issue to process.
Curious where other providers stand on the issue, I asked a few colleagues under what circumstances they would add an individual therapist in Phase 1 of FBT. These were their replies.
Never, if there isn’t a comorbid issue. I would not ever add an individual therapist to address the eating disorder during FBT treatment. The only time I do it is for some kind of comorbid issue, and even then, I usually don’t do it during phase 1. – Natalie Wingfield, LPC
I strongly discourage it and talk a lot about fidelity to treatment, commitment to the program, and how we want to ensure they are getting the full benefits of FBT. I also talk a lot about lack of research support for adding a therapist and the potential for therapy burnout from seeing multiple providers. But, I’ve had some families where they were very resistant to pausing individual work and I thought a lot about the cost/benefits of them not getting any eating disorder treatment if I remained rigid in my stance. In those rare circumstances, I’ve had success in asking to talk to the individual therapist about the treatment and role delineation/expectations. In my experiences so far, this has resulted in the other therapist either voluntarily pausing their treatment in support of FBT or really good communication between myself and the other therapist to help prevent mixed messages. I could definitely see it going sideways though and it’s not something I casually agree to with families. And it’s always a red flag to me when families won’t back down because it usually means they will be asking for additional changes to the treatment and will struggle with the structure. – Amy Henke, Psy.D.
I wouldn’t for the reasons stated above and more. If they are in phase 1 and therefore undernourished, they are not likely going to be able to engage productively in therapy anyway. I can see a lot of processing how difficult phase 1 of FBT is, and expressing a ton of distress which naturally most therapists would feel compelled to solve. This could only lead to the individual therapist interfering in the FBT process or at the very least introducing doubt about its usefulness to the client and family. Overall, “0/10 would not recommend” is my stance. I think it also confuses the idea that renourishment is really the key to resolving many of the presenting behavioral and psychological symptoms. If one therapist is talking about regular meals and the other is talking about self-esteem, 9 times out of 10, an overwhelmed parent is going to pick self-esteem as the issue to address. Then we risk losing the client to something that is not going to help them. – Christine Knorr, LCSW, CEDS
Usually I don’t recommend that as it creates a lot of cooks in the kitchen. We know how challenging the beginning of FBT can be for the whole family, I think as clinicians we just support them. – Shelly Bar, MD
Agree with recommendation to hold off adding an individual therapist in Phase I. I haven’t seen that ever go well. I have a few cases now where the individual therapist was brought in Phase I. I’m constantly trying to uphold the power to the parents, because therapists want to find a way to give voice and choices to the child. – Katie Grubiak, RDN
Many parents experience guilt when their teen is diagnosed with an eating disorder. Nearly every parent can point to a time they themselves dieted, opted not to have a dessert they really wanted, expressed a preference toward thinness, or discouraged their child from keeping eating. You may have done things to try to keep your teen’s weight down and you likely did it with love and good intention—to protect your child from weight stigma and perceived subsequent health and social consequences.
It is common to wonder whether such actions contributed to the development of your teen’s eating disorder. Guilt is common for parents to experience when their child has any illness. In the case of eating disorders, many of the behaviors that are part of the disorder are reinforced by our culture’s preference for thinness and so blame is even more compelling.
What is Diet Culture?
Diet culture is a system of beliefs that values thinness and promotes it as a way to increase one’s worth. It creates rules about what type of eating is “healthy” and oppresses people who don’t meet the thin ideal.
Diet culture messages are everywhere, so it’s not your fault that you’ve absorbed them and subscribed to these beliefs without ever thinking twice about them. Diet culture is the soup in which we all swim. It’s the dominant paradigm. You likely have heard fear-mongering messages from other health professionals. You see it in the news.
Why is this system of beliefs so dominant? It’s promoted by a $70 billion diet industry. It’s entrenched in our fatphobic healthcare system. It’s reinforced by the media.
Parents often become the unwitting messengers of the dominant cultural message they hear from other health professionals. But this is an important turning point. Now that you are helping your teen with an eating disorder, it’s time to question what you think you know about health and weight and eating. You were not born hating your body. You developed these beliefs and you can unlearn them. It is never too late to start unlearning and unsubscribing to diet culture. We want you to join us in helping to break down the institutions that reinforce fatphobia and contribute to the development and maintenance of eating disorders and make your teen’s recovery harder. Your teen needs you fighting for their liberation.
We believe that parents are important allies for their teens with eating disorders. Even if you have disparaged your own body, dieted, cheered when your teen started eating healthier, or encouraged them to exercise in the early development of their eating disorder, we want you to know that you are not to blame for your teen’s eating disorder. Please show yourself compassion. Your teen needs you.
Learn about how health is much broader than weight. Read the resources on our website about Health at Every Size ® to expose yourself to messages that challenge the weight-normative paradigm.
Stop talking critically about any body, including your own body and especially fat bodies. Model body appreciation and respect for all bodies and for body diversity.
Accept that your teen likely needs to gain weight and examine your fears about what that means for them and for you. Read our article on recovery weights.
Encourage your teen to see fat not as something to be feared. We don’t want to reinforce what the eating disorder is afraid of. We need to make it safe for people to be fat.
Curate your social media feed. The mainstream media images we see are not diverse, and the images we do see of larger bodies are often portrayed in a particularly negative and stigmatizing way, adding fuel to the fire. One way to build your own acceptance of body diversity is to acclimate to seeing a broader range of bodies portrayed in a desirable way.
Refrain from categorizing foods as healthy or unhealthy, good or bad. Model eating a variety of foods including foods you may have previously demonized, including desserts. Model eating with enjoyment and the social connection that comes from sharing meals.
If you previously promoted leaner, restrictive or “healthy” eating and are worried about creating confusion or appearing hypocritical with a new message around more flexible eating and more calorically dense foods, you can unapologetically explain to your teen that, in light of their eating disorder and what you are now learning, that you are also working towards a broader understanding of health and nutrition and becoming a more flexible eater. Some of the more powerful situations I’ve encountered include when a parent shares their own process in rethinking their relationship with food and their body while simultaneously doing their own work alongside their teen in recovery.
Teach your teen to think more critically about health and media messages they observe.
It’s never too late to change your thinking about weight and food. Many parents of teens who’ve had eating disorders have become great advocates for size diversity. Please join us in the anti-diet movement.
Externalizing an eating disorder is a therapeutic strategy that became more widely known through Jenni Schaefer’s book Life Without Ed, cowritten with her therapist Thom Rutledge. The book summarizes Jenni’s recovery from an eating disorder.
Jenni describes how in her treatment she learned to personify the eating disorder as “Ed,” an abusive boyfriend. As explained in the blurb on her website, “By thinking of her eating disorder as a unique personality separate from her own, [she] was able to break up with Ed once and for all.” The book details the various exercises she used in her recovery, including creating a formal “divorce decree” with the eating disorder and pushing back on him at every turn. In an Academy for Eating Disorders tweetchat (2014) on the topic, Jenni Schaefer tweeted, “Ed could say whatever he wanted. To be in recovery, I had to make the decision to disagree with and disobey him.”
This “externalization” strategy is borrowed from narrative therapy. A key principle of narrative therapy is that the person is not the problem – instead, the problem is the problem. The problem is viewed as something with which the person is in a relationship, not as something that is part of the person. It follows then that the person can separate themselves from the problem and reduce its effects on them.
Family-based treatment (FBT), the leading evidence-based treatment for adolescent eating disorders, adopts narrative therapy’s externalization strategy in dealing with the eating disorder. The perspective taken by FBT clinicians is that the teen must be extricated from the eating disorder’s clutches.
When working with families, the FBT therapist encourages them to treat the eating disorder as an external force that has invaded the teen and hijacked their brain. Some families will even name the illness after a favorite villain such as “Voldemort” or refer to it as “the monster.” The therapist then rallies parents and other family members to unite against this common enemy to help their teen fend it off.
Many patients and family members can relate to this externalization strategy because the teen does appear to transform into a “different person” under the spell of the eating disorder, especially around mealtimes. This externalization allows families to reframe the situation: the teen does not want to restrict their eating—instead, that the eating disorder is an alien force that makes them restrict their eating.
While both Life Without Ed and FBT have given externalization popular traction, research has not definitively answered whether it is a helpful technique. While we do have research showing FBT to be highly effective, FBT includes so many elements it’s possible that it might work without the externalization component. In order to know for sure, we would need special research in the form of dismantling studies that test each individual element of a full treatment—to determine the role of externalization on the overall treatment outcome. There is one recent qualitative paper that studied the process of externalizing the eating disorder.
What are some advantages of externalizing the eating disorder?
It offers a convenient and relatable metaphor: “The eating disorder is possessing you.”
It can make it easier to call out certain behaviors as problematic even if they do not feel troubling to the patient themselves.
Experiencing the eating disorder as an unwelcome invader may help marshal the patient to fight back against it.
Redirecting the anger of families and caregivers towards the eating disorder allows them to retain compassion for the patient.
It puts everyone on the same team battling a common enemy: the eating disorder.
It can help the patient become accountable for their own recovery by learning to rebel against and defy Ed.
Reasons you might not want to externalize the eating disorder
Some professionals worry that giving the eating disorder its own persona gives it too much power and might encourage patients to blame the eating disorder while absolving them of any responsibility for recovery. Some people find externalization too trendy and are put off by it.
According to the qualitative paper by Voswinkel and colleagues (2021), there were mixed perceptions about externalizing by patients interviewed. Some people with eating disorders feel like the eating disorder is a part of them and felt they were not taken seriously or criticized by externalization. Many of the characteristics of patients with eating disorders—such as perfectionism—are actually personality traits that by themselves are not problematic. So by associating these characteristics with an external agent, there is a risk of inadvertently criticizing the patient. People with eating disorders may find the externalization technique dismissive or invalidating of their experience and may become angry when their family members externalize the eating disorder.
So, should you do It?
Clinicians and family members considering externalization should assess the potential risks and benefits of this technique. If you are a person with an eating disorder and this metaphor makes sense to you, you can learn more about the strategy by reading Life Without Ed. If you are a family member of a person with an eating disorder and/or a parent doing FBT, it can also be helpful to consider this as a strategy for talking about the eating disorder with your loved one. Life Without Ed is also good reading for parents and even some teens in recovery.
It is always a good idea to check with the person with the eating disorder about how they perceive externalizing. If you are supporting a person in recovery and they dislike your ascribing the eating disorder its own persona, then you can refrain from talking about it in front of your loved one but still use it as a way to frame your own understanding of the situation.
Eating disorder expert Carolyn Costin, MA, MED, MFT suggests a similar but alternative strategy to externalization: think of the patient as having two aspects of their own self, a “healthy self” and an “eating disorder self.” Eating disorder researcher Kelly Vitousek, Ph.D. offers another option: abandon the metaphor altogether and explain these behaviors to the patient as symptoms of starvation. These alternatives to externalization might be preferable to some people with eating disorders.
Finally, it is important to emphasize that, regardless of the way an eating disorder is framed, behavioral change is critical for recovery. Many of the symptoms and dangers of an eating disorder can be related to nutritional deficits and these symptoms are often improved with proper nutrition and normalization of eating behaviors.
Parents doing FBT often struggle with “normal parenting concerns” and setting limits while doing FBT. They’re refeeding their teens at home, doing the hard work often done by professional staff at treatment centers, but they still have to parent. It’s exhausting. Their teens who have eating disorders are often experiencing the psychological and physical consequences of malnutrition while also being a teen and facing the challenges that typically come with that stage of life —social and academic pressures, family stresses, desire for more independence, and puberty.
It’s not uncommon for teens to be a little rebellious or to challenge limits. Some parents may feel they should ignore any defiance from teens in recovery or may be afraid to confront behaviors they would normally not tolerate in their children. Other parents may want to clamp down on all undesirable behaviors.
In FBT we talk about separating the child from the eating disorder and joining with and loving your child while waging war against the eating disorder threatening your teen’s life. This model may be helpful in decisions about how to parent. I recommend first trying to determine whether the behaviors you are concerned about are part of the ED or not.
This may not be obvious at first glance, but if defiance or anger or disrespectful language or threatening behavior comes out at, just before, or after meals or during an FBT appointment or a weight check—or around discussions of food, body, the eating disorder, or treatment—assume it’s the eating disorder and not your child. Remember that your child with an eating disorder has a decreased ability to regulate emotions as a result of malnourishment and that they are in a state of terror at these times. This is the fight-or-flight reaction seen during episodes of high anxiety. The eating disorder will make them lash out in hopes of avoiding the source of the anxiety (food, weighing, etc.). During those moments, I recommend speaking to them compassionately and recognizing the underlying emotion of anxiety, and not reprimanding the behavior in the moment.
During times outside of meals or treatment—which may seem few and far between for those just beginning this journey—this behavior is less likely to “be the ED.” At these times, you should parent largely as you would normally do, with the caveat that your child is under increased stress from treatment. If you would normally reprimand or give a consequence to your child for inappropriate language, staying out after curfew, or screaming at you, feel free to do so. You do not have to tolerate rudeness and defiance and can require appropriate behavior.
As you do this, do keep in mind that the intense process of recovery—including exposure to what is often 6 meals per day—is putting your child under additional stress. I like to remind parents that in many cases, teens go to residential treatment centers. While these centers have their pros and cons, one helpful aspect of residential treatment is that it removes the teen from the everyday stresses of school and home life (annoying brother, curious extended family, and heavy academic loads, etc.) so they can focus entirely on treatment. It can be easy to overlook how these stressors add up.
You might want to pick your battles so your teen doesn’t feel battered all the time. Some smaller things—like clothes on the floor of their room or not cleaning their bathroom—may need to be overlooked. You will want to prioritize addressing behaviors that affect you—for example, rude language—or that interfere with the goals of treatment, including weight gain and normalizing eating. So, if your teen doesn’t come back in time from an outing with friends and misses a snack or meal, that would be a high priority to address. On the other hand, you might choose to let go of their not going to bed on time (as long as it doesn’t keep them from getting up in time for breakfast).
If you are unsure whether the behaviors are part of the eating disorder or not and how to respond, I encourage you to consider whether their behavior is different than it was prior to the eating disorder. A normal developmental trajectory may be contributing to the changes in behavior. An older adolescent may be more challenging of authority and may exhibit behaviors that were not a part of the repertoire 6 to 9 months earlier, before the start of the eating disorder. If the behavior is different, consider whether it might be related to the stress of recovery, the result of malnutrition, or something else entirely. If it seems different and/or persists, speak to your treatment providers or have your child assessed. It may be that they have another mental health disorder that needs to be addressed. If the behaviors were there before the eating disorder, you should also talk to your treatment providers and see if additional support is needed to help you address them.
Finally, keep in mind that this is a tough time. You have a lot on your plate. Parenting and treating an eating disorder is a lot all at once. Try to separate your teen from their eating disorder and develop a list of priority behaviors to address so you don’t take on too much at once. Talk to your treatment team about your concerns. And remember you don’t have to abdicate all parenting just because you are also on their treatment team.
Two of my favorite teen parenting books:
Get Out of My Life, But First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall?: A Parent’s Guide to the New Teenager by Anthony E. Wolf
Parenting Teens with Love and Logic: Preparing Adolescents for Responsible Adulthood by Jim Fay and Foster Cline
If you have an eating disorder, or your child has one, there is a good chance that weight gain will be an essential part of the recovery process. This is true not just for people in objectively small bodies, but also for people in larger bodies who are diagnosed with Atypical Anorexia, a weight-biased diagnostic category included in the DSM-5. It is even true for people recovering from bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder.
The eating disorders field lacks consensus on how to set recovery weights. I know a respected professional who argues adolescents should be routinely restored only up to the 25th percentile weight for age. They argue that this reduces their potential for experiencing weight stigma and reduces their anxiety. However, I see a problem with this, as do many of my colleagues and many families and recovered people.
This article discusses why weight recovery is a priority; what the research on weight suppression says; how we use growth curves in setting recovery weights; what evidence suggests that many providers set recovery weights too low; and how this applies to people in larger bodies.
Why Prioritize Weight Recovery
We know that while weight recovery in anorexia is not sufficient for recovery in and of itself, it appears to be a prerequisite for full psychological recovery. Eating disorder cognitions as well as most of the physical symptoms appear to recede only with full weight restoration (Swenne et al., 2017). Food is medicine not just for the body, but for the brain as well. That is why we often say, “Food is medicine.”
The research on timelines for eating disorder recovery show that remission of eating disorder behaviors such as binge eating and purging takes an average of eight or nine months, and weight recovery takes on average 12 months. But it takes even longer to end eating disorder thoughts, including the preoccupation with shape and weight and urges to restrict, purge, or exercise. These thoughts can persist for nearly a year after a person has reached a normal weight, has stopped engaging in behaviors, or both.
Weight Suppression and Negative Energy Balance
We also know that weight suppression—defined in adults as the difference between a person’s current weight and their previous higher adult weight—predicts continuation of eating disorder symptoms including binge eating. In children and adolescents, weight suppression would be defined as a negative deviation from one’s expected weight curve (more on growth curves below). Therefore, at EDTLA we prioritize full weight restoration for all patients in all body sizes and with all eating disorders. Failing to fully restore a person to their recovery weight for body and brain could prevent them from a full recovery.
A negative energy balance—taking in less energy than one’s body needs—may be a primary contributor to the development of an eating disorder in someone who has the innate susceptibility. Cindy Bulik, Ph.D. describes how a negative energy balance lowers anxiety for a person with this vulnerability, creating a trap. Restriction becomes seductive under these conditions. Couple this with the evidence that the weight loss leading to the development of anorexia nervosa could be unintentional—such as a side effect of an illness or an overexpenditure of energy for sports combined with undereating. Together these suggest the best defense against relapse is maintaining an adequate energy balance and a healthy weight where the brain is functioning well enough to not act on residual thoughts.
Using Growth Curves to Estimate Recovery Weights
In this section, I will discuss why using individual growth records is so important. We have received guidance from our colleagues specializing in adolescent medicine and eating disorders. Like many eating disorder dietitians, one of the things we do is look at childhood growth records when they are available. This method is more tailored than using population averages such as BMI to set recovery goals.
In the US, most pediatricians and family medicine doctors document children’s growth on the CDC growth chart, which plots height, weight, and body mass index (BMI) against age-based averages. In healthy children and teens, height and weight each increase along a consistent growth curve. Some children and teens grow steadily along the 95th percentile, some along the 75th percentile, some along the 50th percentile, and still others along the 25thh percentile.
But not every body is the same, and it’s normal for individuals’ height and weight to follow different growth curves. For some children and teens, a weight along the 75th percentile and height on the 25th percentile is normal. This defines the growth curves for that individual. Just as not every woman of average height wears a size 8 shoe, not everyone of average height is meant to be at the 50th percentile for weight. There is always a normal distribution in a population. These growth percentages appear to be largely genetically determined.
A deviation on an individual’s growth curve for weight, height, or BMI—even in the absence of actual weight loss—may indicate there is a problem such as an eating disorder. A child should be growing and gaining weight during this time, so the failure of a child or teen to gain the appropriate weight can be equivalent to weight loss. This means that when there is actual weight loss, the amount of suppression—the difference between current weight and where one should be on a growth trajectory—is usually even greater than the actual pounds lost.
Thus, a parent may come to us and say, “My child has only lost 10 pounds.” However, when that weight is plotted and we notice that the child also failed to gain any weight in the months before they lost weight, we might now look at their curve and see that in fact, the child should gain 20 pounds (or more!) to catch up to where they should be on their own unique growth curve. Some kids may not have lost any weight at all—but have fallen short of their appropriate gain for so long that they now should gain at least 10 pounds.
This is why we also often say that weight is a moving target. To remain in recovery, a year from now an individual’s goal weight must be higher than the weight that would be healthy at their age today. And this is true even for children who are no longer getting taller, as it is normal for weight to continue to be gained through about age 20.
Please be aware that some non-ED specialist pediatricians/health professionals may not be well-informed about this individualized process of setting goal weights. I once had a pediatrician who told a teen’s parents she would be happy if my patient got to a certain weight because that was the weight that the pediatrician—who was herself quite petite—had weighed at the patient’s age.
What? A pediatrician setting a goal weight for a patient based on her own unique growth history!?? When you take your clothes in for alterations, does the tailor cut the clothes to fit the tailor? Do you see the problem here?
Speaking of growth curves, the use of growth curves to spot early eating disorders is an underutilized practice. In a recent study on pediatric patients hospitalized with an eating disorder, 48% of patients experienced a deviation in the growth curve a median of almost 10 months prior to the first eating disorder symptoms being reported by parents.
We will also show you how your teen’s weight should be tracking on the weight curve. Teens generally gain 30 to 40 pounds in the course of puberty. While many children gain weight and grow naturally during this period, we find that children who have had an eating disorder may need continuing guidance to help their weight keep pace with their age and height. We encourage parents to keep an eye on their teen’s weight to make sure weight continues to track along the expected curve. We respect parents and educate them on this.
Challenging weight bias and setting higher weights goals does not always make us popular. Teens with eating disorders are by definition, terrified of gaining weight. In her blog, eating disorder specialist pediatrician Julie O’Toole discusses the setting of goal weights and how parents fear that too much weight gain will make their teen more depressed and anxious. Dr. O’Toole emphasizes the importance of basing treatment goals on data rather than placating the eating disorder.
Remember that an irrational fear of weight gain is often a symptom of the disorder. The anxiety over one’s body size often improves significantly with recovery, which requires more regular eating patterns and—ironically—weight gain. Please note this is rarely immediate. It may take up to a year of being at one’s healthy weight and learning to tolerate a changed body before the eating disorder thoughts fully subside. On the other hand, appeasing the fear of gaining more weight can maintain the fear and potentially the disorder.
How Does This Apply to People in Bigger Bodies?
We are often asked why a person who has historically been at a higher-than-average body weight must be returned to a weight that is higher than average. We recognize that bodies naturally come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some people are meant to be larger. We often encounter patients and families who say “but they looked better when they were a few pounds less” and want to use the eating disorder as an opportunity to keep a person’s weight suppressed. We believe that using an eating disorder as an opportunity to avoid returning to a previous higher weight could hinder the individual from reaching full recovery. And the research on weight suppression supports this. In the words of Julie O’Toole, “Rarely can a child who is genetically programmed to be larger than average be safely held at a ‘thin’ body weight. Size acceptance may be a part of the family’s treatment challenge.” For further guidance on parenting kids in larger bodies we recommend this guide to parenting fat kids.
Of Course, Recovery is About More Than Weight
Remember, though, that an estimated recovery weight is just that—the best estimate of where recovery will occur. I think it is important for parents to have a roadmap and to know generally whether they might be needing to add (at least) 10 pounds or 20 pounds or 40 pounds because it gives you a realistic expectation of how long the weight recovery phase may take. Again, this may change over time and our estimates are usually a minimum weight and bodies may go higher.
Ultimately, recovery is about state, not weight. And recovery means more than just weight recovery. We are looking for recovery of physical health—normalization of heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature and resumption of menses when appropriate—as well as psychological recovery which includes improved mood, decreased eating disorder thoughts, return of normal hunger cues, and more regular eating, a less fraught relationship with food, improved social functioning, and a return of interest in other age-appropriate activities.
In one informal survey of 29 parents whose teens were given a recovery goal of 19 BMI, most reported recovery actually occurred at a BMI of 23 or greater and none achieved recovery at a BMI lower than 21. Parents will report that often, with an additional ten extra pounds, their teens were more likely to attain state recovery. If someone is not doing well at what we initially estimated to be a recovery weight, we will review that and may suggest after a few months that we raise the goal weight a little.
This post has described our thinking, which is informed by research, parent feedback, and expert opinions by leaders in the intersection of adolescent eating disorders, FBT, and Health at Every Size ®. We hope it helps you understand our recommendations.
But you don’t have to take our word for it. We invite you to do your own research. Below we’ve compiled some resources from leaders and colleagues in the field. And we strongly suggest you watch this video by Eva Musby.
As I’ve talked about in depth here, the transition to college away from home is challenging for most young adults. It is especially fraught for young adults with eating disorders. In that article I provided a College Readiness Checklist for students who are either considering their first move away from home after a history of an eating disorder or returning to college after being diagnosed with an eating disorder. I have learned the hard way. I’ve witnessed the heartbreaking reality of what can happen to students who go away before they’re ready. I may seem stringent, but we’re talking about one of the most deadly mental illnesses and this is your child’s life and future.
I was recently asked whether the same standards should apply in the current climate. I replied that I thought the standards should actually be more stringent given the pandemic. This has been on my mind all summer; now, I am prepared to sound the alarm.
Students with eating disorders of all types—anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID)—often have a narrow range of foods they are comfortable eating. They often struggle with flexibility.
The pandemic has thrown a wrench—really, a whole toolbox—into the college experience. Among the changes this fall is that most dining halls have pivoted to prepackaged meals. This will be an added challenge for students with eating disorders. Students have already reported that the results are long lines as they wait for food, far fewer food choices, no option to portion their meals themselves, and no option to mix and match. These prepackaged meals may be insufficient in nutrients or energy, especially for students in recovery who have high energy needs.
Add to this the experience of students who are quarantining either due to outbreak or exposure, or as required by the college upon return to campus as a preventative measure. Most are in dorm rooms without access to a kitchen. Social media has exploded with unfortunate food stories:
Meals comprising things students cannot eat—a vegan student who gets a steak and cheese salad; a student allergic to gluten who gets a sandwich on wheat bread
Meals never received, received several hours late, or 3 daily meals batched into one delivery at the end of the day.
These stories are garnering attention, people find it laughable, and the colleges are receiving criticism, but I can only think about how the students with eating disorders are impacted.
Eating disorder recovery requires eating at regular intervals and meals sufficient to maintain recovery. Even a small negative energy balance can increase the risk for relapse in individuals with anorexia nervosa or increase the risk of binge eating for those with bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder.
Students who are not very stable in their recovery may not be able to handle the current climate. They may not be able to seek additional food if portions are too small. People early in recovery often experience shame about hunger. It could be very triggering to receive portions that are not satisfying. Patients with eating disorders may not be able to advocate for their nutritional needs or do the problem-solving required to make sure the meals are sufficient. Finally, receiving an entire day’s worth of meals at the end of the day would be a natural trigger for those who have struggled with binge eating—or for most people!
Add to this the stress of academics and social issues and the uncertainty about the rest of the semester, and you have a perfect storm for relapse.
If you have any doubts about whether your student may be ready for college under these challenging circumstances, I strongly encourage you to consider keeping them home this semester. If there ever was a time to err on the side of caution, it is now.
With most classes online and social options at college significantly limited, this provides a unique opportunity to keep them home so they have more recovery time under their belt before they have to face such eating challenges. They will not be missing much, and you can work on strengthening recovery so that when the pandemic is over they can return as a healthier student capable of embracing the full college experience. You can use my article—which outlines steps to prepare a student for the challenges of navigating recovery in college— to make sure they are fully prepared when the time is right.
In a previous post, I have discussed who is typically on an FBT team. In its traditional manualized form, the core team is a therapist, a medical doctor, and the parents. The team can also include a registered dietitian nutritionist (to guide the parents) and may include a psychiatrist.
It is not uncommon for medical providers unfamiliar with FBT and treatment centers to encourage additional individual therapy for the patient. As I have said previously, this is not always advisable. In FBT, less can be more—the work of the parents may be undermined by an individual therapist who either does not believe in or does not support FBT.
So, I thought it would be useful to describe in greater detail the situations in which I think additional therapies are warranted and which therapies are most aligned with FBT.
FBT is primarily a behavioral treatment, administered by parents. The two therapies I discuss below—Dialectical Behavior Therapy and Exposure and Response Prevention—are also behavioral treatments that can be applied consistently alongside FBT without confusion. By contrast, non-behaviorally-based therapies may create splitting or confusion when offered alongside FBT. In particular, you should be cautious about and avoid therapies that do not reinforce the parents’ authority over eating or introduce different theories about the cause of an eating disorder.
Comprehensive Dialectical Behavioral Therapy
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) is a form of cognitive-behavioral treatment (CBT) developed in the 1980s by Marsha Linehan, Ph.D. It was developed to treat chronically suicidal individuals diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and is now considered the most effective treatment for this population. Research has demonstrated its effectiveness for a range of other mental disorders including substance dependence, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and eating disorders.
DBT stands out as the treatment of choice for people with difficulty regulating emotions—those prone to outbursts of anger and impulsive behaviors such as self-harm and purging. It focuses on the teaching of skills to tolerate emotions and improve relationships.
Be aware that there are many therapists (including us!) who use DBT skills in individual therapy with clients. Some therapists also may offer a standalone DBT skills training group. However, while these individual elements of DBT treatment may be beneficial, comprehensive DBT has a powerful advantage.
For DBT to by comprehensive it must comprise the following components:
DBT skills training. This almost always occurs in a group format run like a class. Group leaders teach behavioral skills and assign homework. Groups meet weekly for 24 weeks to complete the curriculum. Skills training consists of four modules: Mindfulness, Distress Tolerance, Interpersonal Effectiveness, and Emotion Regulation.
Individual therapy. Weekly sessions run concurrently with the skills training. The individual therapist helps clients apply the DBT skills.
Phone coaching. Clients are encouraged to reach out to their individual therapists to receive in-the-moment support applying skills during times of need.
DBT Consultation Team to Support the Therapist. All the members of the DBT team (group therapists and individual therapists) support each other in managing these clients who are in high distress.
When a teen is in comprehensive DBT, there is usually a parallel track for the parents that includes a parent skills group and a parent phone coach so that the parents receive help supporting their teen who is learning to apply DBT skills.
Exposure and Response Prevention
Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) refers to specific CBT strategies used to address obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or similar symptoms. OCD is characterized by distressing and intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviors in which a person engages to try to reduce the distress. In ERP, the patient is exposed to the distressing situation and encouraged to prevent their compulsive behavior so they can learn to tolerate the distress. Once a person feels capable of handling their distress they will no longer need to engage in the compulsive behavior.
OCD and eating disorders commonly co-occur, and eating disorders can result in compulsive behaviors that require additional attention, such as compulsive exercise or other rituals not related to eating. Patients with eating disorders who engage in these behaviors may benefit from the addition of ERP.
As of March 2020, the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic is bringing dramatic changes to all aspects of our lives.
One of the most significant impacts of social distancing is a change in the mode of delivery of psychological treatment. It appears that most outpatient therapists, dietitians, and medical doctors are moving entirely to telehealth sessions (over the computer). Even many intensive outpatient (IOP) and partial hospitalization (PHP) programs appear to be shifting to a telehealth delivery model. Further, it appears that admissions to residential treatment centers may be reduced and limited to only the most severely medically compromised patients.
As a result of more stringent admission standards as well as travel restrictions and the transition to online sessions, it appears that a larger number of eating disorder patients will be in the home. Fortunately, Family-Based Treatment (FBT) is a treatment naturally poised to fill the gap created by the Coronavirus.
FBT has emerged as a leading therapy with empirical support for the treatment of adolescents with anorexia nervosa who are medically stable. It also shows support for adolescents with bulimia nervosa and young adults with anorexia nervosa. FBT makes the role of parents central to challenging their adolescent’s eating disorder. The hallmark of the treatment is family meals which parents plan, prepare, serve, and supervise. If purging is an issue, they supervise after meals. They implement strategies to prevent purging, excessive exercise, and other eating disorder behaviors. I have often said that FBT is like providing residential treatment in your house for only your child.
FBT is a manualized treatment and usually takes place in approximately 20 weekly sessions with an FBT therapist over a period of about 6 months. A teen should also be monitored by a medical doctor and a dietitian may be involved in helping the parents with meal planning. Fortunately, FBT sessions can be delivered via telehealth.
Telehealth is the delivery of medical or mental health treatment over live video. There are numerous HIPAA-compliant platforms that treatment professionals use such as Doxy, Zoom, and Vsee. Aside from a reliable internet connection and a private setting, there are no additional requirements for telehealth delivered mental health care. Telehealth interventions have been used in various forms since 1972. In general, the research shows that therapy delivered via telehealth can be effective for a variety of problems. Telehealth has been successfully applied to both family therapy and the treatment of eating disorders.
Kristen Anderson, LCSW and colleagues did a study of FBT for adolescent anorexia utilizing telehealth. They utilized the same treatment manual utilized in outpatient studies of FBT with minor variations. For example, instead of weighing the patient in the therapist’s office prior to appointments, the parents weighed the patient at home prior to the session and shared the weight with the therapist. The structure of the sessions was the same, with all family members in attendance. The therapist initiated therapy sessions by video conference and met individually with the patient for a few minutes first, followed by a meeting with the entire family for the remainder of the therapy hour.
Anderson and colleagues found that it was feasible to deliver FBT via telehealth. There were no dropouts over the course of the study and the average number of treatment sessions attended was 18.4. Parents found the treatment to be extremely helpful and participant weight increased significantly. Meaningful improvements were also noted in eating disorder symptoms as well as depression and self-esteem. Anderson and colleagues concluded, “these findings suggest that this method of delivering FBT may be effective for meeting the treatment demands of adolescents living in areas of the country where there are inadequate treatment resources such as nonurban or rural settings.”
Little did they know that throughout the world, social distancing would create a need for FBT delivered by telehealth!
If you are looking for virtual FBT support during this time, we can support families throughout the states of California, New York, and Florida in the US, and we can also provide support for families in some other countries. We use a secure online platform. Please ensure you have a stable internet connection and try to position the video so that all members of the family are in view of the video screen. Learn more about our telehealth services.
If you are looking for FBT by telehealth in other states and countries, please check out the following websites:
Family-Based Treatment (FBT) is the leading evidence-based treatment for adolescents with anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. One of the common misbeliefs I hear is that it’s “only for kids or younger teens.” However, I think it has a much wider applicability. In fact, I would say that my FBT training has significantly improved my effectiveness in treating eating disorder patients of all ages.
While there have not been studies of FBT that pull it apart and pinpoint the elements that drive its success, I have a few theories. One of the key underpinnings of FBT is meal support. People with eating disorders experience such crippling anxiety before, during, and after meals that it is no wonder they would do anything they can to avoid eating. When the brain is in a state of overwhelming anxiety, a person with an eating disorder cannot make logical decisions about what to eat—or even to eat. And yet, without eating there can be no recovery. Treatment centers understand this—providing regular meals has been the mainstay of residential and partial hospitalization (PHP) eating disorder treatment for some time. FBT is the in-home parallel to this treatment.
In FBT, parents are charged with nourishing their teens back to health by providing regular nutrient-dense meals and preventing purging, excessive exercise, and other eating disorder behaviors. Parents plan, prepare, serve, and supervise meals and after meals, if purging is an issue. They make all the food decisions. They sit with their struggling child during those terrifying meals and help their teens cope with eating amounts sufficient for them to get well. Over time they return control to their teens, building their capacity to fight the eating disorder on their own. It takes effort and time to change brain pathways that have made eating a scary experience. For this reason, even those patients with eating disorders who go on to higher levels of care usually don’t remain there long enough to develop the autonomous ability to eat enough to sustain recovery. They often continue to need meal support for some time after more intensive treatment.
I think FBT has applicability that spreads wider than just children and teens. There is preliminary evidence of its successful use with transition-age youth up to age 25. Many parents have reported successfully using it with their college-age children. I have used it with this age and the primary variation is that the young adult plays a bigger role in their own treatment. They must agree at least in theory to accept their parents’—or other caregivers’—support. The young adult may choose who will support them during meals. Some, for example, may have a college roommate provide support. Some parents do meal support via FaceTime when the young adult lives far away.
I should clarify that FBT is a manualized evidence-based treatment. To be done with fidelity it must comprise certain components, including a therapist who guides the parents in organizing their strategies to fight the eating disorder. Parents refeeding their child without a therapist’s oversight often state they are “doing FBT”. In this case, it is more accurate to say they are providing FBT-informed or carer-supported feeding. Regardless of the words we use to describe this support and whether or not a therapist is involved, I think it provides a core benefit that we can expand to other populations.
These principles can also be applied to adult treatment. I personally have supported an adult who was in PHP during the day and needed more support with meals outside of treatment hours. I applied the skills I learned in my FBT training to provide meal support to this person. It worked just like it did with teens. Obviously this adult was an active participant in their recovery who asked for my support. This does not mean that I did not encounter the same kind of anxiety and resistance that parents meet around meals.
Take another case —a 20-something patient who still lives with her parents. She has been doing so much better since she asked for help, trading in the restrictive foods she had been eating on her own for several years for family meals prepared by her parents. Or the case of a college student who gets support via FaceTime from her parents who live in another city. When working with young adults with eating disorders who are in loving relationships, we often work to help their significant others develop strategies to support them during meals.
My experience is not unusual. Many other FBT-trained clinicians report success with providing FBT-informed treatment to people from all walks of life. One dietitian has reported great progress working with an employed single adult who moved home to live with his parents so they could support with meals. Sadly, previous providers had pathologized his moving home as a sign of enmeshment. One therapist shared, “I am doing FBT with a 79-year old. She is now in phase 2. She can now go out on dates—she just has to send pictures of her food to her adult children who are taking charge of her recovery and have been in charge of plating her food.”
Many have realized that in-home meal support is a common need for patients, and naturally, it is starting to become a big business with several treatment programs now providing this service. Offered as a service, this individualized meal support can be very expensive. Far more convenient, cost-effective, and loving is meal support provided by parents, other family members, or significant others.
I personally see it as a sign of strength when an adult admits they need more help. There is no shame in needing meal support during your recovery no matter what your age. Moving back home to live with family for support is nothing to be embarrassed by. This disorder robs people of their ability to make decisions around food—outside support is needed by definition. If you struggle around mealtimes with deciding what to eat, only feel safe eating a narrow range of food, have been struggling to make progress in your recovery, or cannot manage urges to purge after eating, you are not alone. You may benefit from the addition of meal support. It may feel scary or embarrassing to ask for help and you may worry you are being a burden. But asking for help is a brave step and you will likely find that there are some people in your life who can do this for you. It sometimes requires a little creativity, but you may find that it makes a big difference in your recovery.
The short answer is: FBT can be for people of any age.
Chen, E. Y., Weissman, J. A., Zeffiro, T. A., Yiu, A., Eneva, K. T., Arlt, J. M., & Swantek, M. J. (2016). Family-based therapy for young adults with Anorexia Nervosa restores weight. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 49(7), 701–707.
Dimitropoulos, G., Freeman, V. E., Allemang, B., Couturier, J., McVey, G., Lock, J., & Le Grange, D. (2015). Family-based treatment with transition-age youth with anorexia nervosa: a qualitative summary of application in clinical practice. Journal of Eating Disorders, 3(1), 1.
Dimitropoulos, G., Landers, A. L., Freeman, V., Novick, J., Garber, A., & Le Grange, D. (2018). Open Trial of Family-Based Treatment of Anorexia Nervosa for Transition Age Youth. Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 27(1), 50–61.