by John Levitt, PhD
In 40 years of working with eating disorders patients, I can say without any doubt is that there is no easy panacea for those struggling with recovering from an eating disorder. Ultimately, the only way someone truly gets better is through building his or her recovery in the actual aspects of their life. Indeed, if you’re not experiencing life, building relations where you feel cared for, engaging in work or school, or building a lifestyle that is meaningful, it is very hard to sustain and effectively recover from an eating disorder.
Eating disorders serve a protective purpose for the individual. There are some who use it for other reasons, but in my experience most people use it to serve a social/relational purpose or as a way to manage their emotions or manage their self-worth. These purposes are, in fact, meaningful and intense for the person who has an eating disorder. Consequently, an individual can appear recovered behaviorally (i.e., reduction in eating disorder symptoms), but that’s often only when the challenges of treatment and recovery truly begins. These challenges generally don’t occur in the treatment center, but only through the experiences of living life itself.
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I think it’s really important that we reevaluate our perspective on eating disorder treatment and recognize that treatment centers represent an opportunity to learn new tools, but they are not the complete solution.
You can take your child or loved one to a treatment center or program and they will generally learn behavioral tools, stabilize their disorder, and begin their journey towards recovery.
The healing, however, has to continue when they come home.
The healing has to continue for life.
I also think it’s important to balance the need for a child or adolescent to begin their “recovery” in the context of their developmental needs. That is, they need to become “their own person.” When parents push unwilling children into treatment centers against their will, children will often push back. As a result, it can be very frustrating, and economically difficult, for parents who are in this situation – spending hundreds, if not, thousands of dollars getting their loved one treatment. They are desperate to help their children, and often financially commit themselves to their loved one’s recovery even though their child might resist their efforts.
There is no easy answer or solution for eating disorder treatment and recovery. I think it’s very important for family members, including the child, to talk these ideas through with someone who is qualified to provide them with an honest assessment of where their child is in their disorder and recovery, what the child and family’s options are for recovery, and what is realistic to expect from a treatment center, program, therapist, group, and/or other approaches to recovery.
I recommend that parents focus on providing a consistent, safe and secure environment where recovery can take place, and strive to empower their child to continue a healthy life while pursuing recovery. This is really difficult, and I encourage parents to learn not just about the eating disorder behaviors, but also about the underlying triggers and situations that can lead to eating disorders.
For example, it is very important for parents to learn how to set limits, but also how to praise and encourage their child both during and after treatment. Kids don’t get better if they don’t have hope; and fundamental to hope is the belief that recovery is possible and likely in a caring environment.
A lot of parents think that the baby and toddler years are hardest, but I believe that later years, such as ages 10-18, are when kids may need the most intensive parenting. This isn’t any longer about watching them learn to safely walk, eat and crawl. Now it is about the child learning about their life while being in an emotionally safe environment. It’s not as obvious, but children need just as much care throughout adolescence as they did during infancy. They need a safe, consistent environment so they can take the next step in their life.
As a therapist, I am grateful and honored to the individuals and families who have allowed me to enter their lives and be part of their recovery. In my approach, I focus on treating all eating disorder patients and their families with kindness and hope. I believe, and have found, that generally people get better over time in the context of a good healthy human interaction; which I believe effective therapists offer families who are going through eating disorder treatment.
John L Levitt, PhD, CEDS, FAED, FIAEDP, is the coeditor of the book, Self-Harm Behavior and Eating Disorders: Dynamics, Assessment, and Treatment, and is on the Editorial Board of Eating Disorders: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Phone: (847) 370-1995