Eating Disorders for Parents: Therapy

Young women's version of this guide

Because an eating disorder is both a medical and psychological condition, most people meet with a licensed therapist as part of treatment. Although some families worry about stigma attached to seeing a therapist, it is helpful for parents to encourage their child to keep an open mind because most young people find therapy very helpful.

What are the advantages of having your child see a therapist?

There are a lot of advantages to seeing a therapist and for each person these benefits can be different. A therapist can:

  • Provide a safe place for your child to (privately) share feelings without fear of being judged for causing problems or hurting someone else’s feelings
  • Give your child a place to address other emotional problems that may be related to the eating disorder such as depression, obsessive–compulsive disorder, anxiety or substance abuse
  • Help your child process events in his/her life that may affect mood and can lead to disordered eating or destructive behaviors
  • Help your child figure out what caused the eating disorder, what function/role the eating disorder plays in one’s life, and what factors may have contributed to the use of unhealthy behaviors
  • Help your child examine thoughts that might be distorted, obsessive, or destructive
  • Teach your child healthy coping mechanisms to manage stress and strong emotions
  • Help your child build self–confidence, self–esteem, and positive body image

“It has always been hard for me to open up even to my closest family members and friends. When I finally started opening up in therapy and sharing thoughts and feelings that I had never talked about before, I noticed a huge difference in my mood and how happy I was. Since then, my friends have told me what a huge difference they see in me and how much more open I am. I know this sounds cheesy, but there is no way this would have been possible had I not gone to therapy.” Brooke, 19 yrs.

What are the types of mental health therapy?

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT is a type of therapy that teaches your child to understand how thoughts and feelings influence behaviors. CBT helps your child learn to identify and change thoughts that may not be healthy or helpful. CBT is a short term treatment and can also help manage anxiety behaviors.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT): DBT is a type of therapy that teaches your child coping skills that are necessary to manage his/her emotions, control and decrease harmful behaviors, and improve interpersonal relationships. It is primarily a group–based therapy with weekly individual therapy. DBT emphasizes skill building and problem solving.

Family–based Therapy (FBT): FBT is a type of therapy that empowers parent(s) to play an active role in helping restore their child’s weight to a normal range. This type of therapy is sometimes referred to as the “Maudsley” method. The therapist meets with the entire family on a weekly basis and supports the parent(s) in re-feeding their child. Through the process of helping parents solve problems, the parent(s) learn how to support their child through the recovery process. The goal of FBT is weight restoration and returning the child to normal physiological and psychological functioning.

Outpatient treatments may include other types of family and group therapy.

Group therapy: Group therapy is a type of therapy that involves your child and others close in age who are experiencing similar struggles. The therapy involves meeting with a therapist as a group to gain support, share experiences, stories, and goals.

Family therapy: Family therapy is a type of therapy that involves your child and some or all other members of your family. The therapy involves meeting with a therapist as a group to discuss family relationships and how the family can best work together to support the recovery of your child.

Helpful tips to support your child make the most use of therapy:

  • Recognize that your child may feel uncomfortable at first. It takes everyone different amounts of time before they begin to feel comfortable opening up to their therapist. If this is your child’s first time seeing a therapist, it is totally normal for her/him to be shy, reserved, or even be upset about having to go to therapy.
  • Encourage your child to be honest. Therapy gives your child a chance to share how he/she genuinely feels without being judged and without offending anyone. Also, young people with eating disorders often have difficulty seeing their weight loss or disordered eating behaviors as a problem, so the more honest your child is with the therapist, the more helpful therapy will be.
  • Make sure that your child feels comfortable with the therapist. It may take a few sessions for both you and your child to feel that the therapist is a good match. If your child is unable to recognize that they have a problem, it can take longer to feel ready to work on the psychological aspects of their physical health. If the therapist is not a match, which is common, help your child find another therapist.
Myth: It’s almost impossible to recover from an eating disorder.
Truth: Complete recovery is possible, but it can take a long time for some people. Recovery can take anywhere from months to years because it requires people to change the way they think and act about food and how they cope. It also takes a team of specialists to address all the issues that led to the eating disorder and is rarely something someone can do without professional help.