Family therapy

Most professionals in the field of eating disorders in young people will agree that family therapy is one of the most important ways of treating the disease. Family therapists are trained to help the members of the family unit to:

• talk to each other about the patient's illness

• discuss the effects it is having on the individual members of the family

• discuss the effects it is having on relationships within the family

• identify things which might need discussion and resolution

• consider any actions that might help improve things for the patient and his family in the home environment.

Depending on the stage of the patient's illness the family might be asked to try and take responsibility for feeding their child, or at least to take a central role in supporting their child's efforts to eat. Ideas about how to improve things might flow easily from the discussion, although not many families find family therapy easy. The therapist might have to take a pro-active role in encouraging all the members of the family to speak up. Certainly in our first session Joe only spoke when spoken to and then his answers were monosyllabic. His younger brother Tom, who was only nine years old at the time, spent the entire session drawing pictures and basically ignored the therapist when she tried to speak to him. Subsequent sessions were easier and we all got more out of them. When Joe was discharged from the in-patient unit we changed to a different family therapist. We all found her much easier to talk to, but this may simply have been a function of the fact that Joe was well on his way to recovery and we were all more relaxed. However, if you find that you are not making much progress with one therapist it is worth trying to find another as your family may simply get on better with someone who takes a slightly different approach or has a slightly different character.

Many families feel defensive when they are asked to attend family therapy. They feel that they are being blamed for their child's illness. Some families even refuse to attend on the grounds that their other children are fine and so there cannot be anything wrong with the family set-up. It is important to remember that nobody is trying to blame the family, everyone is trying to help the anorexic child recover. The family knows their child best and in family therapy it is the family who can help the therapist by highlighting important issues. As parents you are important allies both to your son and the medical team. Family therapy can put you in a stronger position to help your son conquer his illness and get through the recovery phase.

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