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sEating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa affect teenagers all over the United States. These disorders can lead to a variety of complications if they are not treated effectively, including both mental and physical ailments. In the worst cases, eating disorders can even be fatal. For this reason, finding an effective treatment program is essential for parents of teenagers with eating disorders.

One of the most important components of any eating disorder treatment program is education. Below is some information about the use of education in the treatment of eating disorders and why it is an integral part of the treatment process.

Components of Eating Disorder Treatment Programs

Teenage eating disorder treatment programs vary according to their content and structure. The most successful programs are those that include multiple components and are customized to meet the needs of the individual client. Some of the key components of a successful eating disorder treatment program may include:

1. Psychological treatment

Eating disorders usually result from a number of different causes. However, most eating disorders have a psychological component. For example, the teenager may have trouble with her body image, leading to feelings of anxiety, depression and a desire to make drastic changes to her appearance. Psychological treatment helps teenagers to recognize the psychological factors that led to the development of their eating disorders so they can construct a more realistic sense of self and learn to cope with negative or irrational thoughts. Psychological treatment can also help teenagers to deal with some of the new psychological issues that may have developed as a result of their eating disorder, such as social anxiety.

2. Medical treatment

Medical treatment is another important component of any successful eating disorder treatment program. Many teenagers struggling with eating disorders will have medical concerns as a result of their disorder. For example, an adolescent with anorexia nervosa may be severely underweight and malnourished. They may also have organ damage and other problems resulting from ongoing lack of proper nutrition. The goal of medical treatment during eating disorder recovery is to identify these medical issues and address each one so that the individual can recover both physically and mentally.

3. Supportive services

Following treatment, many treatment programs offer aftercare services to clients to support them as they return to life outside of the treatment center. These services are designed to provide support to clients as they return to society, so they can reduce their chances of a relapse.

4. Education

Educational services included in teenage eating disorder treatment programs serve a number of purposes. Some of these services are designed to provide the adolescents themselves with knowledge and skills they can use to recover from their disorder, while others are designed to provide knowledge and skills to family and friends of adolescents in treatment.

Each of these program components fulfills a different need for clients. When used in the right combination, all of these services will maximize the likelihood of a complete, successful recovery.

Education for Eating Disorders in Adolescence

Education is an integral part of teenage eating disorder treatment for many different reasons. Some of the ways in which education can be used in eating disorder treatment centers are detailed below.

Education for Academic Purposes

One of the most challenging aspects of treating teenagers with eating disorders involves meeting their academic needs. Many adolescents enrolling in eating disorder treatment programs are missing school in order to get the help they need. However, missing school can lead to additional anxiety and stress for the adolescent, as they must then try to catch up with her peers when they return to class. Some eating disorder treatment centers offer academic assistance to their clients in order to help them prepare to return to school without as many struggles.

At Clementine, for example, all adolescents engage in a personalized education plan while they are enrolled in treatment. This program begins as soon as the adolescent is admitted and continues throughout treatment. Each day, adolescents in the program work on academic content for two and half hours. State-certified educators are employed on-site, and parents and schools will receive weekly communications regarding the adolescent’s progress. Clementine coordinates all academic programs with parents and schools to ensure that the adolescent can return to school successfully. Referrals to tutors specializing in specific academic areas are also available to adolescents enrolled in eating disorder treatment at Clementine.

Education about Eating Disorders 

In addition to using education to make sure adolescents are able to keep up with school work, eating disorder treatment centers are also using education to help clients understand their conditions more thoroughly so that they can cope more effectively when they leave treatment. Some of the goals of eating disorder education during treatment include:

  • Helping adolescents understand why their disorders developed

Through psychotherapy, self-analysis and eating disorder counseling, adolescents are able to learn about the different factors that may have caused them to develop anorexia, bulimia or some other related disorder. Understanding these factors makes it easier to address each one and achieve recovery.

  • Helping adolescents understand how eating disorders affect their physical and mental health

Eating disorders have a profound effect on a teenager’s body and mind, but many teenagers are unaware of how serious the consequences can be. Eating disorder education teaches teenagers about the dangers of malnutrition, purging, excessive exercise and other destructive behaviors that typically accompany an eating disorder. Although understanding these effects won’t cure an eating disorder without other forms of therapy, it helps teenagers to realize just how important it is to achieve successful eating disorder recovery.

  • Helping adolescents build life skills

Dealing with eating disorders in adolescence is easier for individuals who have strong coping mechanisms and solid life skills. A center for eating disorders can help teenagers build these skills by providing the appropriate educational resources during the treatment.  Examples of life skills education include teaching teenagers how to perform chores responsibly, manage their time, develop healthy priorities, work on homework, deal with school stresses and peer pressure, be assertive in difficult situations, communicate effectively and make good decisions. Many successful eating disorder treatment programs also focus on helping adolescents develop ways to relax and cope with difficult times and/or negative emotions.

  • Helping adolescents prepare for life after treatment

Re-entering society after a residential treatment program is difficult for clients of any age, but it is especially challenging for teenagers who are already dealing with peer pressure, social anxiety and the other issues that come with adolescence. If adolescents are not adequately prepared to return to society, their risk of relapse may be higher because of the associated stress. For this reason, many centers for eating disorders incorporate educational services designed to prepare adolescents for life after treatment into their programs. For example, the program may include sessions in which the teenager learns about the best ways to reintegrate into school, begin a safe exercise regimen and continue her recovery outside of the treatment center.

  • Helping adolescents understand nutrition

Most teenagers with eating disorders will need nutrition education as part of their treatment program. Malnutrition is common among adolescents with eating disorders and learning to eat healthily can drastically reduce the risk of relapse and future medical complications. The best programs will not only help teenagers understand their nutritional needs, but they will also help them develop a personalized meal plan they can use after the treatment program is complete.

Education for Friends and Family

Educational services can also be beneficial to the families and friends of people who are struggling with eating disorders in adolescence. The connection between teenagers and eating disorders is complex and difficult to comprehend but understanding how these disorders develop and how they can affect an individual is essential for friends and family who are trying to provide support. Some of the goals of education for friends and family members of adolescents receiving treatment at a center for eating disorders include:

  • Helping friends and family members understand the underlying factors that lead to eating disorders

 Eating disorders usually develop because of a combination of psychological, genetic and social factors. Learning about these issues helps friends and family members to gain a better understanding of why their loved one developed bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa, or some other eating disorder.

  • Helping friends and family understand the psychological and physical impact of an eating disorder

Friends and family members need to understand how the eating disorder has affected their loved one, both physically and psychologically. The impact of an eating disorder can be profound, but friends and family can help the individual to heal more effectively if they are able to be sensitive to these effects. Many centers for eating disorder treatment provide this type of education to the loved ones of clients enrolled in treatment.

  • Teaching friends and family members to recognize the signs of relapse

 Even with the best treatment, every teenager who leaves an eating disorder counseling program is always at risk of relapsing. Minimizing the chances of relapse is essential, but it is also important to catch any signs of a relapse as soon as possible so that the teenager can get the help they need before the disorder progresses. To help identify relapses as soon as they occur, many eating disorder counseling programs educate friends, parents and other family members about the signs they may notice if the teenager is struggling to maintain her recovery. These programs may also education friends and family members about the steps they should take if they notice these signs.

  • Helping friends and family members understand how to best support their loved one during recovery

Many friends and family members aren’t sure how they should respond to and interact with a teenager who is in treatment for an eating disorder or has just completed a treatment program. Many eating disorder treatment programs incorporate education for friends and family members to help them learn how they can best support a teenager in eating disorder recovery. This includes teaching loved ones to be emotionally supportive, help teenagers adjust to life outside of treatment and ensure that teenagers follow all of their aftercare plans to minimize the chances of a relapse.

Eating Disorders at Clementine

At Clementine, we understand the complex relationship between teenagers and eating disorders. Eating disorders are much more common within this age group, and they require specialized treatment services. We offer a comprehensive residential eating disorder treatment program designed specifically for adolescents. In addition to providing psychological and medical treatment to our clients, we also offer a range of educational services designed to improve the effectiveness of treatment. We provide academic assistance, eating disorder education for adolescents, eating disorder education for family and much more. Please contact us today to learn more about our services.

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.