What is family therapy?
Family therapy is a type of therapy that involves both the individual who has an eating disorder and members of their family in treatment. Family therapy may include loved ones such as partners, siblings, parents, children, cousins, or close friends.
Much like group therapy, family therapy is facilitated by a mental health professional with experience in treating eating disorders. In this way, it differs from a support group run by a recovery peer who does not have professional training or credentials.
Family therapy may be especially beneficial in treating adolescent eating disorders.
There are many types of family therapy, all of which focus on different approaches. However, no matter which type of family-based therapy for eating disorders is used, the goals are similar:1
- Improve family functioning
- Build stronger relationships
- Create a healthier home environment
- Solve family conflicts and problems
- Understand the unique issues of the family
- Improve communication
- Target dysfunctional family processes, such as overprotectiveness
The entire family doesn't need to be involved in family therapy, though sometimes they can be. Rather, this type of therapy focuses on the close relationships in the person with the eating disorder's life and involves the people who could benefit from professional counseling around the situation.
Different types of family-based therapy available at Within
Here are some common family-based therapy models that can be used to treat eating disorders:2,3
- Conjoint family therapy (CFT): CFT involves two or more family members meeting with a clinician in the same session. This type of family therapy is used when clinicians want to focus on working on the relationship between loved ones.
- Separated family therapy (SFT): SFT involves two separate meetings, one in which a younger person with an eating disorder meets with the clinician and one in which their parents meet with the same therapist. This type of family therapy may be used when there are concerns about parental criticism or hostility.
- Family systems therapy (FST): FST posits the idea of a family as a singular emotional unit. In other words, an individual's behavior influences the entire family unit, and the strength of the family unit can also serve to balance or support each individual within it. FST can be used to help identify and balance power structures within a family, or to address more specific problems.
Within Health may use elements of family-based treatment (FBT), sometimes called the "Maudsley Method
," in our treatment plans. Specifically, it focuses on psychoeducation, which teaches those involved in family-based therapy about eating disorders so a family unit, as a whole, becomes better prepared to understand and manage these issues.
In addition to these types of family therapies, Within also offers a family partnership meeting, in which a clinician meets with family members and outlines a roadmap for treatment, skills, and strategies that may be helpful.
Moreover, we offer groups where many families can talk about their experiences and provide each other with support, comfort, and encouragement. Knowing that other families may be struggling with similar problems can be helpful.
Benefits of family-based treatment for eating disorders
Traditional family therapy can help individuals with eating disorders and those close to them in several important ways, including:
Family therapy can help you identify and avoid triggering events, such as sitting down for a family meal.
- Teaching new coping strategies
- Offering understanding and insight into the family system
- Identifying challenges for the family
- Teaching strategies for dealing with conflict
- Improving communication skills
- Strengthening relationships
- Minimizing or changing the conditions that contribute to the eating disorder
- Teaching family members how to support their loved one with an eating disorder
Treating co-occurring mental health conditions
Eating disorders often co-occur with other mental health conditions, trauma, or other life challenges, and family therapy can also help with these experiences. For example, family therapy may help those who experience or have experienced:
- The death of a loved one
- Divorce or marital issues
- Stressful life transitions
- Teen or child behavioral problems
- Conflicts in family life (e.g., between parents and children or siblings)
Family therapy can help the entire group work on and move past these difficult experiences by involving the people closest to someone with an eating disorder.
How effective is family therapy?
Research has found family-based therapy effective in treating adolescents with eating disorder behaviors. However, professionals have acknowledged the limitations of this type of therapy and its lack of application to all families.4
Family-based treatment may be especially beneficial when helping your child recover from an eating disorder.
Another study showed that family therapy improved family functioning to help treat adolescents with various mental health conditions, such as eating disorders and substance addiction. Parents reported healthier parenting behaviors, greater perceived efficacy as a parent, and improved family cohesion.6
Although family-based treatment benefits a child's eating disorder treatment plan, adolescents, and young adults, the benefits can also extend to older family members.
A literature review found that family therapy can treat many issues adults face, including mood disorders, anxiety disorders, alcohol misuse, psychosis, intimate partner violence, relationship conflict, and chronic physical conditions.5 This is promising for treating eating disorders, given that many patients experience comorbid—or co-occurring issues.
Lastly, another review found that family therapy was effective in treating eating disorders and healing from neglect or abuse, emotional issues, and conduct problems.7
We provide patients with integrated and individualized care
Enrolling in our virtual eating disorder treatment program gives you access to a team of compassionate and deeply caring treatment professionals invested in your recovery.
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Should family therapy be combined with other therapies?
Typically, family therapy is combined with other treatment modalities, such as various individual therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and group therapy, to provide patients with a comprehensive treatment plan that comprehensively addresses their needs and challenges.
Family therapy may be combined with: