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Most eating disorders, including those severe enough to require assistance from an eating disorder treatment center, have an onset averaging at age 18.  That means while many will experience their first symptoms in early adulthood, many more will be experiencing their eating disorder at a much earlier age.

The fact is, eating disorders in teens appear in almost 2.7 percent of the adolescent population.   The experts at eating disorder treatment centers have noted cases as young as age 6, although the beginning of puberty is the most common factor in the development of eating disorders in teens.  When it comes to locating the best eating disorder treatment program for your adolescent, earlier intervention is better than waiting it out.

So what should you be looking for in an eating disorder treatment plan for teens?

An Educational Program That Won’t Leave Them Behind

The most intensive form of eating disorder treatment program is a residential program for teens.  This entails spending at least a month (if not more time) living at the facility and receiving 24/7 supervision and a daily focus on recovery.  While this is crucial in catching an eating disorder early on and providing life lessons on how to defeat it, it can also disrupt an equally critical phase in the individual’s education.

Especially in the age 16 – 18 range, spending time away from school can throw a wrench in the student’s progression towards college applications.  Spending extended time away, from say, an AP course may delay their ability to take the tests they’ve worked so hard to prepare for.

A quality eating disorder treatment program for teens will take these factors into account and plan accordingly.  Look for a program that sets aside time daily for education, preferably a few hours per school day.  Make sure that the educational staff at the eating disorder treatment center are state and locally certified in their subjects of expertise.

Finally, look for a program that will coordinate the lesson plans with your daughter’s school and teachers.  With these specifications in place, a say in an adolescent eating disorder treatment center doesn’t have to mean she will fall behind in her education.

A Staff With Experience and Certification in Treating Teenagers

Certainly, some aspects of eating disorder treatment are the same at any age; for example, any program geared toward stopping anorexia nervosa will center around increasing the client’s comfort around food and removing the restrictive behaviors that define the illness.  However, some aspects are very different.  The teenage years, especially early pubescence, are times of great physical and psychological change, and they are the ages in which psychiatric disorders most frequently appear.

With puberty, everyone experiences the most major changes in their body that they will ever have.  This commonly exacerbates or even begins body dysmorphia (distorted perception of the body image).  In addition to the hormonal changes and emotional distress that come with adolescence, these can combine into a full-blown eating disorder.

Because of these factors and the socialization and interpersonal difficulties of adolescence (in which peers’ opinions and pressures often become overwhelming), the application of the same techniques used in treating adults may not be as effective.  They may even be counterproductive.  A specialized eating disorder treatment center for teens will not only include an academic continuation focus, but will employ therapists, psychiatrists, and medical staff who are experienced in treating adolescents and can take their special needs into account.

Reminders to Enjoy Life

It may seem counterintuitive when discussing what can be a life-or-death course of treatment, but there needs to be an eye on what the future brings.  Adolescents in eating disorder treatment programs should look not only at what they are recovering from but what they’re recovering to.

After all, if the recovery program is successful, the recovered individual will be re-entering daily life. While the lessons learned about how to resist impulses to engage in disordered eating are crucial, so is hope and anticipation of enjoying their life again.  Many of the best residential programs will include activities and excursions like restaurant visits and cultural events like attending concerts or take a nature walk can help set the expectations for a not only recovered, but enjoyable life after treatment.

What Kinds of Treatment Should I Look For?

Psychological Therapy

This is the most common treatment method for eating disorders. Therapy can last for a few months or years and is designed to help clients normalize their eating patterns, exchange their disordered eating habits for nourishing ones, develop problem-solving skills, and more. Some of the most common types of therapy for eating disorders include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Family-Based Therapy, and Cognitive Processing Therapy (which focuses on addressing PTSD and other forms of trauma).


While medications cannot cure an eating disorder, they can be beneficial to anorexia nervosa recovery. Often used in combination with regular therapy sessions, adolescents with eating disorders may be prescribed antidepressants and other medications to help treat some symptoms. These medications are more often prescribed for other mental health conditions like acute depression or anxiety disorders, which frequently co-occur with eating disorders.

Nutrition Education

Quality treatment programs also focus on nutrition education for clients and their families. The common goals of nutrition education include understanding how food affects the body, establishing regular eating patterns, building nutritious and sustainable meal plans, and engaging in exposure to “fear foods.” A major part of nutrition education is demonstrating how improper or inadequate nutrition affects the way people think and the way the brain functions. Nutrition education is doubly important for adolescents, as their still-growing bodies require special nutritional strategies.


Research Your Treatment Options

Residential Treatment

The most intensive and highest-outcome form of eating disorder treatment is residential treatment. This involves the client temporarily living in a facility that can oversee all their medical, psychological, and nutritional needs. Usually, these programs begin at 30 days, although occasionally shorter stays are possible, and longer stays are not uncommon. For clients with extreme medical needs such as intubation or malnutrition, residential treatment includes a hospitalization segment until they become medically stable.

Going to residential treatment is a major commitment. Potential clients and their parents should make efforts to thoroughly research the program before deciding. The specific treatments for their eating disorder, whether it’s anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, ARFID, OSFED, or others should be laid out clearly. There should be a wide spectrum of possible treatments that include evidence-based treatments like CBT, experiential therapies like art or music therapy, and mindful movement programs.

There are certain things that simply talking on the phone or visiting a website can’t achieve. If you’re going to spend 30 or more days of intensive emotional rehabilitation, completely changing your life, you need to feel safe and comfortable in the facility. For this reason, most residential eating disorder treatment centers will offer a tour of the center for prospective clients. If financially possible, you should schedule a time to come visit and familiarize yourself with the grounds, rooms, and staff. If that’s not possible, there may be an option to take a virtual tour.

Day Treatment

Day treatment programs for teens can be a great recovery option but depending on the individual needs of each person, there may be more intensive treatment programs out there. Reaching out to a trained eating disorder therapist or another care provider for recommendations can be a great place to start looking at this alternative to residential treatment.

If teens chose a day treatment center to begin the recovery process, they can generally expect to attend counseling sessions anywhere from 3 to 7 days per week — usually in the evenings. Many of these counseling sessions will be centered around group therapy. Although it is also common for adolescents to engage in individual therapy sessions and family therapy. Additional care levels include residential eating disorder treatment, where teens have access to 24-hour care, a typical 5-day per week partial hospitalization program, and inpatient care, where adolescents who need medical and psychological stabilization are often best served.

Virtual Treatment

Digital-only therapy was available in the past, but in the current climate with social distancing protocols for COVID-19, a virtual approach to therapy for eating disorders has become more common. Similar to day treatment programs, the client and therapists will meet several times a week via Zoom or another teleconferencing platform. Many of the same therapeutic techniques used in residential and day treatment programs are available virtually, especially talk-based therapies like CBT. Virtual treatment is also a valuable step-down option for people who have completed residential treatment, or those who need supplemental therapy after a PHP program.

Reach Out Today

If your teenager is showing the signs of an eating disorder, don’t hesitate.  Reach out to a quality adolescent eating disorder program today.


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.