Harvard Mental Health Letter

In Brief: Options for treating adolescents with anorexia nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is a deadly eating disorder, killing 5.6% of patients for every decade they remain ill. After three years, the risk of the illness becoming chronic dramatically increases and treatment becomes less effective. For these reasons, early intervention is important.

To better determine what outpatient therapies are effective for children and teens with anorexia, researchers at Stanford and the University of Chicago conducted a randomized controlled study of two different approaches, family or individual therapy.

Family-based therapy incorporates principles of the Maudsley method, a technique developed in England that emphasizes family involvement. Therapists assure parents they are not to blame for the eating disorder, help parents to encourage their child to eat, and encourage them to gradually give the child more autonomy over meals. Adolescent-focused individual therapy is based on principles of psychodynamic therapy. Therapists work with the adolescent to build autonomy, self-reliance, and assertiveness, although they also encourage parents to participate periodically in family therapy.

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