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Recognizing Eating Disorders in Adolescents: A Family Approach

Eating disorders are a concerning challenge that many families face, particularly when it comes to teenagers and adolescents. These disorders can manifest in various forms, making it essential for parents to understand the nuances involved in helping their child on the path to recovery. In this blog post, we’ll provide an overview of common eating disorders seen in teens, the signs that indicate the need for intervention, and a structured approach called Family-Based Therapy that can help guide you through this difficult journey. 

Understanding Common Eating Disorders in Teens 

Teens struggling with eating disorders often don’t neatly fit into one specific category. There can be overlap in symptoms, which makes early identification and intervention crucial. Here are some of the most common eating disorders seen in adolescents: 

  • ARFID (Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder): This disorder involves an extreme avoidance or restriction of certain foods, often due to sensory issues or aversions. 
  • Anorexia Nervosa: Anorexia comes in various types but generally involves a severe restriction of food intake, leading to unhealthy weight loss and a distorted body image. 
  • Binge Eating Disorder: Characterized by consuming large amounts of food in a short time, often accompanied by feelings of guilt and loss of control. 
  • OSFED (Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorder): OSFED encompasses various eating disorders that don’t fit the exact criteria of other diagnoses. 

Recognizing the Need for Intervention 

Identifying signs that your child needs intervention is crucial. Some indicators may include: 

  • Loss of Menstrual Cycle: This can be a sign of malnutrition and hormonal imbalance. 
  • Significant Weight Loss: Sudden, unexplained weight loss can be a red flag. 
  • Abnormal Vitals: Pay attention to vital signs like heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature. 
  • Physical Symptoms: Look out for physical symptoms such as hair loss, feeling constantly cold, and cognitive decline. 

If you don’t observe these signs, weight restoration might not be immediately necessary. 

Family-Based Therapy: A Structured Approach 

Family-Based Therapy (FBT) is an evidence-based approach designed to treat eating disorders in teens. It consists of three phases: 

Phase 1: Refeeding Your Child 

  • Non-Blame Approach: Understand that eating disorders are serious illnesses and avoid blaming your child. 
  • Plate-By-Plate Approach: Focus on meal restoration and set goals for weight restoration. 
  • Meal Supervision: Monitor mealtime to ensure your child is eating adequately. 

Phase 2: Introducing Independence 

  • As weight stabilizes, gradually introduce activities and encourage independence. 
  • Build your child’s autonomy, allowing them to participate in meal planning and selection. 

Phase 3: Back to Normalcy 

  • Once weight is restored to 95% of target body weight or greater, encourage involvement in activities and minimal use of eating disorder behaviors. 
  • Shift from “fighting” the eating disorder to “supporting” your child. 
  • Normalize mealtime and gradually reintroduce a variety of foods. 

Navigating eating disorders in teens can be a challenging journey, but with the right approach, it is possible to support your child’s recovery. Family-Based Therapy offers a structured way forward, emphasizing early weight gain and the gradual return to normalcy. Remember, you’re not alone in this journey, and seeking professional help is essential. Your unwavering support can make a significant difference in your child’s journey to recovery. 

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