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Bulimia Nervosa Health Center

Family Therapy Helps Teens With Bulimia

Method Allows Parents to Be Involved in a Child's Treatment
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Sept. 4, 2007 -- A family-based approach showing promise to help treat children and teens with anorexia may be an even more effective treatment for bulimia.

Family-based treatment involves close monitoring of an anorexic or bulimic child's eating behavior by parents who are encouraged to intervene when they see signs that the behavior is out of control.

The thinking is that parents and other family members are in the best position to help a child with an eating disorder get well -- not by becoming food cops, but by providing encouragement and support, Daniel le Grange, PhD, of the University of Chicago tells WebMD.

"Instead of telling parents to back off, they become a big part of treatment," he says. "They work together with their child to figure out the best way to get a handle on eating binges."

Bulimia Treatment in Teens

In the study by le Grange and colleagues, the family-oriented approach was compared with supportive psychotherapy for the treatment of teens with bulimia or those who frequently binged and purged, but did not meet the strict criteria for the disorder.

The goal of supportive psychotherapy was to identify underlying emotional issues that might cause the bulimia. It included no behavioral therapy to specifically address symptoms.

Between 2001 and 2006, 41 teens were randomly assigned to family-based treatment and 39 to psychotherapy. Both interventions involved 20 outpatient-clinic-based visits over the course of six months.

Slightly more than twice as many patients in the family therapy group -- 39% vs. 18% -- achieved remission by the end of treatment, meaning that they reported no binging or purging during the previous four weeks.

Six months after treatment ended, 12 of the 41 patients (29%) who got the family therapy remained in remission, compared with four of the 39 psychotherapy patients (10%). Partial remissions were seen in 41% of the family therapy patients and 21% of the psychotherapy patients.

The findings are published in the September issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.

Research on Bulimia in Teens

The study is one of only two randomized, controlled trials to examine family-based therapy for the treatment of bulimia in adolescents.

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