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Evidence Based Treatment For Eating Disorders In Teens

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 3% of teens aged 13-18 will develop an eating disorder, with the average age of onset typically being 18 years-old. Teens are at a stage in life where they are becoming more aware of their thoughts and feelings, especially in relation to others. Physically, teens are in various stages of puberty which can instigate concerns about body size, shape and/or weight in comparison to their peers. Add the age of social media that we are in, and our teens are seeing photoshopped images of their peers and favorite celebrities often perpetuating the ‘thin is in’ ideal. Add a sprinkle of the diet culture that often has family members and friends cutting out important food groups and/or restricting the intake of food and it’s not hard to believe that many teens end up with disordered eating that can quickly result in an actual eating disorder.

Did you know that of all the psychological disorders, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate. The balance between medically stable and life-threatening can happen very quickly when someone is battling an eating disorder.

Below are some signs for parents to look out for to tell if your teen is struggling with an eating disorder:

  • Has your teen recently been losing weight? Have you noticed clothes looking baggier or perhaps your teen has been covering up more (to hide body)? Or perhaps they have gained significant weight?
  • Has your teen claimed to be eating “healthier” but refuses to eat certain food groups or has been skipping meals entirely?
  • Do you notice your teen eating in private or have you found food in discreet places such as their room, under the bed, in drawers, or in closets?
  • Has your teen been spending more time than usual in the bathroom?
  • Has your teen been over exercising or constantly moving? Have they been exercising at odd hours or exercising to the point of injury or even with injury?
  • Has your teen been making negative comments about how they look or in comparison to others? Do they have a collection of ‘thinspiration’ pictures of ideal bodies on their social media or personal space?
  • Have they been weighing themselves excessively and does their weight influence any negative mood?
  • Do you notice them not eating at times to only overeat at another point in time?

While none of these questions in of themselves indicate an eating disorder, they can point to disordered eating or unhealthy patterns of eating that offer a gateway for developing difficulties with food and weight. If you have positively answered several of these questions, a good place to start is with your primary care doctor. But time is of the essence. Research has shown that treatment in the early stages of an eating disorder offers the best chance of recovery. Once the eating disorder is established it can be a lot more difficult to treat. When meeting with your doctor, be clear about your concerns about your teen’s eating and/or weight. Make sure that your doctor does take their growth charts into consideration. You will want to make sure that they do run some general blood work and tests to rule out any biological concerns. If your doctor does feel that the teen either has an eating disorder or is at risk for one, then a mental health counselor or psychologist is crucial to treatment.

When trying to find a psychotherapist, you’ll want to make sure that you find someone who is highly knowledgeable and trained to work with someone struggling with eating issues and weight concerns. While many therapists might claim to be experienced in the treatment of eating disorders, few are qualified. How do you know if they are qualified? Make sure that they have clinical training working with individuals with an eating disorder. Here in San Antonio it is important to determine whether they are licensed, as San Antonio registered psychotherapists  are not but can still provide ‘therapy’. Lastly, make sure that the clinician is trained in evidence based treatments for eating disorders. This means that the clinician is trained in methods that have shown, through research, to be effective in helping teens with eating disorders. This will give your teen the highest likelihood of recovery.

What is the treatment of choice for teens who are struggling with an eating disorder?

The definitive gold standard, at this point in time, is Family Based Therapy (also referred to as the Maudsley Method). While it was originally developed to treat Anorexia Nervosa, research has suggested that it is also effective for other eating disorder categories as well. In Family Based Therapy, there are 3 main phases to treatment. In the first phase, all control over food choices and portions are given over to the parents or guardians. Treatment is focused on helping families find the best strategies to get their teenagers back on track with their eating habits. In the second phase, the teen begins to work with their family to have a say in what they eat and how much. In the final phase, the teen is given back full control over their eating. One of the best advantages of this method is that the treatment incorporates the family and provides the teen with a model of support that can be difficult to replicate when the teen becomes an adult. All too often, therapists make the mistake of treating teens as adults and conducting more individual therapy which misses out on the rich resources of the family. While Family Based Therapy has been shown to be effective, it does not work for everyone. However, cognitive behavior therapy for eating disorders has been shown to be effective for both adults and teens struggling with an eating disorder and is another form of evidence based treatment that can be helpful.

If you have an adolescent or teen struggling with eating disorder thoughts or behaviors, we hope that this article has given you some direction on understanding your eating disorder diagnosis and how to choose your San Antonio counselor or therapist if you are seeking help for your loved one.

If you are still feeling stuck or would like a free 15 minute phone consultation, we would be happy to hear about what is happening and either help or direct you to the right person. Sillon Wellness has psychologists and counselors experienced in evidence-based care who specialize in helping adolescents, teens, and adults struggling with eating disorders.

Here at Sillon Wellness we offer in office therapy to anyone in San Antonio but we also offer teletherapy for patients in and around Texas. Contact us or call us at 726.201.5284 to book your first appointment,