by John Levitt, PhD
I often get calls from parents asking me about how to get their child into a (usually inpatient or residential) eating disorder treatment program, but I almost never get calls from parents who want to know how they can avoid sending their child to a treatment center.
I think many parents assume that a treatment center is the only option for their child, but that’s often just not the case. There are definitely times when an inpatient or residential treatment center is the best option for their child’s eating disorder recovery, but it’s important to know that the potential costs for sending one’s child to a treatment center (financially, personally, and socially) are possibly very high — and relapse rates can also be very high as well!
Treatment centers are run by good people who are generally doing good work. That said, treatment centers are businesses, and you as parents are the consumers. Don’t be afraid to be a smart consumer. Ask a lot of questions. Ensure you understand what you are getting into. That is, make sure you know what you will be paying for and what outcome(s) you can expect. Parents should become the experts on what they are “buying” before taking the leap to send their child anywhere!
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First, it’s important to know what treatment centers can – and can’t – do. Treatment centers are places where your child can stabilize his or her eating disorder symptoms. Their weight will hopefully improve and likely stabilize and their eating disorder symptoms will likely be reduced or even eliminated completely while they are staying at the treatment center. Associated symptoms of depression and anxiety and so forth are also likely to improve.
That said, when they get home, they are faced with the same life stressors and conditions that may have at least bred the eating disorder, or minimally, were associated with the eating disorder prior to going to going to treatment! Once home, this is where the true treatment begins. Your child needs to learn to live with a sense of self-worth and self-efficacy that is enduring and resilient across people, places, and situations — and they often won’t find that in a treatment center. You just can’t practice all of the requirements of life in a controlled setting. Full treatment does not happen in a program, it happens in life.
I recommend that parents ask treatment centers a variety of questions such as: how long does it usually take to stabilize a child’s eating disorder(s) (including issues related to mood etc.), how will the treatment center ensure that you, the parent(s), are an essential part of the treatment, and how will the treatment center prepare your child, and the parents, for the child’s return home — ensuring the maintenance of their treatment gains. In addition, even at admission or pre-admission, parents should ask about what will be needed upon the child’s return home; after completing that treatment. That is, what will your child need following their stay at the center? You should not receive vague answers to any of these questions because they are critical to efforts to achieve full recovery.
I understand how frustrating it can be to have a child who has an eating disorder at home. I understand the desire to send the child “away” to get better because you just don’t know what else to do. But I would be very judicious about sending one’s child away. As long as your child is going to return home to the parent, that parent is going to need to get his/her own tools and support to continue the healing process.
Parents need to be educated, supported and trained to support their children in healing from an eating disorder. Some treatment centers build that into their programs. Ask them about it. Make sure that they will involve you and make up your mind to be involved!
Also, don’t be afraid to ask about the costs involved. Many eating disorder treatment (e.g., residential) centers are running 60 days. That’s a long time for your child to be away from home and away from school. It’s can also be about $60,000 plus. That doesn’t take into account post-center treatment. That can be equivalent to your child’s college tuition.
I don’t want to discourage parents from using inpatient or residential treatment centers. I just want parents to understand what is involved in some types of treatments, carefully review the alternatives, if any, and enter treatment with realistic expectations and get their questions answered! It’s important for parents to be really clear about what is realistic to expect.
John L Levitt, PhD, CEDS, FAED, FIAEDP, is the co-editor of the book, Self-Harm Behavior and Eating Disorders: Dynamics, Assessment, and Treatment, and was on the Editorial Board of Eating Disorders: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention Email: email@example.com Phone: (847) 370-1995