Anorexic: When Your Child is Anorexic (cont.)

Giving Food as Medicine

"These young girls are out of control when they come to see us. They are not able to take charge of anything," says Patricia T. Siegel, PhD, a pediatric psychologist at Children's Hospital in Detroit. Siegel discussed Megan's case with WebMD, but changed the family members' names to protect their privacy. "We told Megan's parents that their child was sick -- that she could not make herself better any more than if she had a cardiac problem. We put the parents in charge of giving their daughter her medicine. In this case the medicine was food."

This approach to treating anorexia made headlines six months ago after Arthur L. Robin, PhD, published findings of a long-term study in the December 1999 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Robin, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at Wayne State University, and his colleagues followed 37 girls. Eighteen of them were treated in individual therapy sessions; their parents were counseled separately and told to give up cajoling or ordering their daughters to eat. The other 19 girls and their parents met jointly with therapists who put the parents in charge of their daughters' eating.

The majority of girls in both groups responded well to treatment: 70% reached their target weight. But the girls whose parents were trained to oversee their food gained weight faster and gained more weight. One year later, even more of those girls had reached healthy weights.

Dispelling the Toxic Family

"The older point of view was that families of anorexic girls were in some way toxic," says Robin. It's true that family problems often contribute to anorexia, Robin says, but it's also true that parents can become a therapist's best allies. Indeed, Ivan Eisler, PhD, a London University psychologist who is leading the training workshop in New York this week, says girls whose parents are directly involved in therapy "in many cases may require no more than a few sessions to achieve good results."

One reason parents can become so effective is that they're with their daughter for hours each day. When properly trained, they can monitor and guide the eating process, says Amy Baker Dennis, PhD, an assistant professor at Wayne State University Medical School, and director of training and education for the Academy for Eating Disorders. Also, parents intimately know their daughter and her social life. When a truce is called in the battle for control, they can help her solve problems and surmount the hurdles she faces. Moreover, the new style of treatment doesn't prevent a family from using therapy to work on issues that may have contributed to the eating disorder.

Dennis cautions that this approach won't work for all families. Girls whose parents have serious problems of their own -- substance abuse or mental illness -- are still best treated individually, she says.