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Realizing a loved one has an eating disorder typically brings up a range of emotions in her family members, friends, coworkers and the other people who are close to her. While many of the people in her life will be filled with blame for themselves and wonder if things could have been prevented or turned out differently if other actions were taken, different things were said or other thoughts along those lines, it is important to keep the focus on recovery. The fact of the matter is that she needs help as quickly as possible and that means finding the right treatment center for eating disorders.

Inpatient or Outpatient Treatment for Eating Disorders in Adolescence

When searching for treatment for teenagers and eating disorders, one of the first decisions the family and other loved ones will have to make involves residential or day treatment. By taking a detailed look at each of these options separately, making the final decision becomes easier because it often becomes clear during this process that one or the other treatment option is best.

Start with a Medical Provider

If a teenager who is displaying questionable eating behaviors and her family or other loved ones are concerned, a good place to start with getting her the eating disorder counseling and other services she needs is to contact her medical provider, if she has one. Even if the young woman no longer sees the medical provider on a regular basis or even if she has not seen this physician previously, because of their training and objectivity, a physician or other medical provider is still a good person to turn to as a resource. His or her medical training and keen observation skills coupled with the ability to be objective about the patients they see can make it easier for this medical professional to spot any red flags that could signal a treatment center for eating disorders should be explored as an option.

Medical providers may have a number of reasons for recommending one particular treatment option to treat eating disorders in adolescence. While the medical provider has the client’s best interests at heart, the fact remains that family members or loved ones can also provide valuable information. For example, you may know the client has a history of attending eating disorder counseling and in what ways that was helpful or was not. This combination of knowledge, education and experience from the medical professionals and family members or loved ones should both be utilized when choosing between the different levels of treatment for eating disorders in adolescence.

What to Know About Residential Eating Disorders Treatment

When it comes to deciding between residential and outpatient treatment for eating disorders, it should first be understood what their differences are. Residential treatment involves the teen girl or young woman going to live at the residential center for a certain amount of time. The exact length of stay is not typically defined when an individual enters treatment because there is no one-size-fits-all treatment plan, completion date or other aspects of care.

While residential or, if needed inpatient treatment for eating disorders, are often considered the best option for any teen girl or young woman who has an eating disorder, it is certainly the preferred choice for those individuals who have other, long-standing conditions that add a layer of complexity to treatment. These disorders include substance abuse or a history of self-harm.

In fact, many teen girls and young women who have an eating disorder also have thoughts of self-harm or suicide. These thoughts should be taken very seriously and must be addressed during treatment in order to help the individual fully recover their healthy self.

Whether a teen girl or young woman is simply abusing drugs and/or alcohol or she is actually addicted to a particular substance, the presence of such a complex condition makes treatment for an eating disorder more complicated as well. While many residential treatment centers for eating disorders have the resources, expertise, and experience to treat eating disorders, substance use disorders and self-harm conditions, the same level of care is not available on an outpatient basis.

There are other elements to consider when deciding between inpatient and residential treatment for a teenager with an eating disorder. Consider the life this teen girl or young woman lives every day. Even if her family and close friends are supportive, it is possible their words or actions could be accidentally harmful. Supporting the family and friends of those teenagers and young women who are obtaining services at a residential center for eating disorders is a key component in treatment. By doing so, the clinical team can help these important people in the young woman or teen girl’s life learn to better support their loved one with both their words and their actions.

Even if the teen girl or young woman has the most supportive friends and family members, she still must contend with life beyond that level of support. Messages from the media that focus on a woman’s body shape, weight or size as well as taunts and comments from those at school, work or even out in public mean teenagers can be triggering and should be addressed in treatment, providing clients the skills needed to combat these triggers when they leave treatment and return home.

A Chance at a Recovered Life

Choosing residential treatment for eating disorders in adolescence provides the time and setting to help teenagers re-learn and model coping mechanisms that will enable them to meet life’s challenges. For example, one type of activity supports individuals in treatment through the tricky process of planning, cooking and eating a meal that is not only delicious, but also nutritious. This is carried out under the helpful guidance and support of certified dietitians and other nutritional staff.

Not only does residential treatment provide the support for each teenager and young woman to approach tasks like these, but they also tend to have fully-stocked kitchens that replicate those in the homes where the patients will be going back to. This kind of hands-on treatment modality gives participants the confidence she can accomplish this goal as well as the tools to do so. Given the time and space constraints that often exist in outpatient treatment centers, the same type of experiences often cannot be provided.

Holistic treatment services are the hallmark of many residential treatment centers. Every aspect of the participant’s treatment plan is geared toward recovery, either physically, emotionally, mentally or spiritually. While many outpatient treatment programs are focused almost exclusively on eating disorder counseling, residential treatment is able to build on ideas and concepts discussed in counseling in concrete ways that are directly relatable and that stick. For example, movement is an important part of any treatment plan at a residential treatment center. For those who use excessive exercise as a method of controlling their weight, learning how to moderate their movement so they obtain the physical and mental benefits it offers without veering into excessiveness is a concrete example of tying the different treatment components together. This approach would be more difficult — if not impossible — to accomplish during the typical session in an outpatient treatment program.

What to Know About Outpatient Treatment for Eating Disorders

There is definitely a need for outpatient treatment for eating disorders for teen girls and young women. One of the most compelling of these is to use this type of treatment as a step-down from the more intensive treatment that residential care offers. For many teen girls and young women who are transitioning from residential care back into their home lives, the reality is it can be a difficult transition. Utilizing outpatient treatment as a bridge, safety net and support system to help teenagers navigate as they ease back into the reality of society and all of its challenges is a great way to provide continuity of care.

Because outpatient treatment is typically located closer to where the young woman or teen girl lives, it can be an opportunity to develop friendships with other teenagers who are attending the same group counseling sessions and other activities. This sense of connection can help the teens feel less isolated.

Choosing Care Near or Far

For many friends and family members who are considering if an inpatient or outpatient treatment center for eating disorders is best for their loved one, distance may be a factor. Outpatient treatment centers are often located within the community where the family lives or else within a short drive. Residential centers, on the other hand, tend to be located some distance away. It is often this distance that makes it easier for the teenager or young woman to focus more fully on her recovery and finding her own healthy self once again. Without the distractions of their community and worries about what is happening outside the walls of their treatment center, they are simply able to focus on getting better and making a full recovery.

Clementine Programs is a residential treatment center for teenage girls and young women with a variety of eating disorders. With their female-focused programming, experienced clinical staff, a focus on a holistic recovery and a supportive environment, Clementine provides the ideal setting to help loved ones find their true, recovered and healthy self once more. Contact Clementine today for answers to any questions you might have, for information about our program or to discuss the admissions process for the person in your life who needs treatment for her eating disorder.


Melissa Spann, PhD, LMHC, CEDS-S

Melissa Orshan Spann, PhD, LMHC, RTY 200, is Chief Clinical Officer at Monte Nido & Affiliates, overseeing the clinical operations and programming for over 50 programs across the U.S. Dr. Spann is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and clinical supervisor as well as an accomplished presenter and passionate clinician who has spent her career working in the eating disorder field in higher levels of care. She is a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders and the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals where she serves on the national certification committee, supervision faculty, and is on the board of her local chapter. She received her doctoral degree from Drexel University, master’s degree from the University of Miami, and bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida.