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Very few things can be quite as terrifying for parents than trying to navigate eating disorder treatment and recovery for their child. Should parents start looking at residential treatment services or is an outpatient or day treatment a better option? Whether teens need access to both medical and psychiatric care or they have severe enough behavioral issues to necessitate a residential teen program, one thing is for certain: catching it early on is essential.

In fact, research shows that early intervention is a key predictive factor in recovery from most mental health disorders in general. And since common eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa carry so much risk of health consequences or even death, parents need to act quickly to find the best treatment option for their child. Interested in learning more about the benefits of residential treatment centers for teens? Read on to learn when teen residential treatment is the right call or if another option is best.

Teen Residential Treatment for Eating Disorders and Early Intervention

It’s a commonly unknown fact that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate out of any known mental health condition – and they tend to be during the teenage years. This severity is because eating disorders carry more physical symptoms when compared to other mental health illnesses. While mental health conditions like anxiety and depression can have hugely negative effects on the lives of their sufferers, unlike eating disorders, they don’t always show many physical health complications. But eating disorders can quickly lead to many different serious and potentially life-threatening health issues. Some of the most common health issues that teens with eating disorders may experience include diabetes, organ failure, cancer, and even death.

This makes an early intervention and finding the right residential treatment services extremely important for a successful and long-term recovery. While it might look like a teenager experiencing an eating disorder is choosing to hurt themselves, it absolutely is not the case. They’re caught in a behavioral loop and may not see a way out. Teens and adults who have an eating disorder often don’t understand the severity of their illness and are typically reluctant to seek out help. That’s where an early intervention by the parents should come into play.

Should Parents Choose Residential Treatment Centers for Teens?

Residential treatment centers for teens can be extremely beneficial for adolescents with severe cases of disorders like anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, or who need psychiatric or medical care in addition to therapy. At our teen residential treatment programs, adolescent patients have access to the highest level of care available outside of a hospital setting.

However, such intensive levels of care might not be the right choice for each case. In fact, there are several different levels of care available for those who have developed an eating disorder, including:

Inpatient Hospitalization Treatment

As an alternative to residential treatment centers for teenagers with extreme medical needs, inpatient hospitalization treatment is designed to help individuals who are medically or psychiatrically unstable. As an example, malnutrition or medically severe weight loss can impact the treatment methodology and teens in these situations can benefit from an inpatient hospitalization setting where experienced medical professionals can assist in a refeeding program before continuing with eating disorder counseling. 24-hour monitoring by doctors and nurses is another feature in these critical cases.

Typically, patients only stay in an inpatient hospitalization treatment facility for 3 to 4 weeks. Once they are considered to be medically stable, they are transferred to a less intense level of care program. This could be outpatient care, intensive outpatient care or a teen residential treatment center.

Intensive Outpatient/Partial Hospital Programs

Similar to teen residential treatment, both of these treatment options are ideal for patients who need a bit more support than what is offered in outpatient care. With an intensive outpatient treatment program, patients can meet with their doctors 2 to 3 times per week for up to 3 to 5 hours each day. During treatment, they will have access to eating disorder counseling, group therapy, nutritional therapy, structured meals and more. This type of treatment is recommended for those who are medically and psychiatrically stable.

As an option for less intense medical needs, there are also partial hospital care programs. In these cases will meet with the medical and psychiatric teams frequently but not 24-hours-a-day – typically 5 to 7 days each week for several hours a day. It requires a large time commitment. However, patients can still live at home whenever they are not in treatment and, in most cases, can keep up with work and school commitments.

Day Treatment or Outpatient Care

This type of treatment is a popular alternative to residential treatment centers for teens because it keeps a regular counseling pattern while permitting time to maintain a regular work or school schedule. The large majority of people receiving help for mental health disorders do so on an outpatient basis, but when medical or psychiatric needs are more severe, it might not be the best option.

With outpatient care, adolescents in treatment will see their therapist or nutritionist once or twice each week. Additionally, they may also need to keep up with regular visits to their physician or psychiatrist to help monitor their status. While this may seem like the easiest treatment option to parents, it is important to keep in mind that achieving a full recovery over an eating disorder can take a long time – with treatment varying from 3 months to several years depending on the diagnosis.

Residential Treatment Specialized for Teens

Residential treatment centers for teens offer patients and their families access to a longer-term treatment than inpatient hospitalization. This is an appropriate choice for teenage clients who are medically stable but still need extensive behavioral and emotional therapy to reach a level of psychological stability that would allow them to enjoy significant control over their eating disorder behaviors.

Residential treatment services are often recommended if adolescents are unable to make significant progress towards a recovered life in outpatient or partial hospitalization treatment. Additionally, residential treatment centers are a great option for those who have completed an inpatient hospitalization program and need additional time for recovery in a safe and structured setting.

When Is Residential Treatment the Right Call?

Without a doubt, the primary benefit of teen residential treatment is access to round-the-clock, 7-days per week overage in a safe, intimate environment. While school time will be missed, adolescent patients are able to focus their time and attention on getting well and learning new skills that will help them navigate life in the outside world. And the best services will offer tutoring and class time to ensure they don’t fall behind.

While the length of stay can vary based on patient diagnosis and the programs available, families should plan on their children being in treatment for anywhere from 30 to 90 days. Following discharge, an aftercare program, often including day treatment sessions can be implemented.

Residential treatment normally includes the standard therapeutic models and educational time, but the best centers will include life-enhancing experiences aimed at helping teens in recovery get the most out of life. They will have the chance to attend concerts and plays, visit parks and zoos, and enjoy other excursions. Additionally, patients usually have access to a variety of different group therapies, nutritional counseling, art, dance, music therapy, and even yoga and meditation classes.

What Are the Options Following Residential Treatment for Teenagers?

Since the average age of onset for eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa is in the late high school years, it is important to look out for the early warning signs of eating disorders. Some of the personality traits that many teens with eating disorders include perfectionism, sensitivity, and high-achieving tendencies. That means that returning to a structured, stressful situation like school, with its grades and often athletic competition, can be dangerous in terms of triggering relapses. So how can recovered teens maintain their healthy behaviors after residential treatment?

Get the Most Out of a Support System

Having a strong support system of family, friends, teachers and medical professionals is the best way to ensure that teens can successfully enter back into their work and school lives after completing treatment for an eating disorder. In some cases, it may even be helpful for family members and close friends to attend eating disorder counseling sessions with the patient, so that everyone is on the same page. In fact, certain eating disorder therapies actually require that family members work a treatment plan along with their teen to help establish a healthy relationship with food and avoid falling back into past eating disorder behaviors.

Go Slow and Appreciate the Small Things

After treatment, many teens re-entering the daily grind can feel overwhelmed by the return of responsibilities and social pressures. It’s essential to find ways to reduce stress. Most importantly, it is smart to take things easy and not to try and take on too much at any one time. This could mean reducing or eliminating extracurricular activities, even for a semester following their return to school, or asking them to quit their afterschool job. None of these have to be permanent, but teens in recovery should not push themselves too hard – stresses can bring relapses.

A very important consideration should be that transitioning back into sports should be approached slowly. Because many student-athletes are under pressure to maintain a certain body shape or weight, it’s important to closely monitor this transition and work with their coaches to be on the lookout for any eating disorder warning signs. Many people with eating disorders also have issues with excessive or compulsive exercise, and teenagers who have just got back from residential treatment should make a concerted effort to avoid stressors, at least in the short term.

Are There Teen Residential Centers Nearby?

Want to find a reputable residential treatment center near you? At Clementine, we specialize in providing adolescent eating disorder treatment in a relaxed, safe and comfortable home-like setting. With access to both medical and psychiatric care, our patients can enjoy the highest level of care outside of a hospital setting. We are happy to work with young patients and their families to ensure that they have the tools they need to make a successful recovery and navigate life after completing treatment. Our treatment programs are designed to help teens replace their eating disorder behaviors with healthy life skills and a deep understanding of how to embrace a life that reflects their individuality.

Areas We Serve:

Houston, TX | South Miami, FL | Malibu Lake, CA | Naperville, IL | Portland, OR | Briarcliff Manor, NY | Twin Lakes, VA


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.