When Do Adolescents Need Residential Anorexia Nervosa Treatment?

Anorexia nervosa in adolescence is a parent’s worst nightmare come true. Despite an ongoing misconception that eating disorders are somewhat benign illnesses, they can be hugely destructive to a teenager, and even fatal in some cases. Anorexia nervosa treatment comes in a variety of forms, ranging from weekly outpatient sessions to day treatment on a regular schedule, and for the most intense cases, residential anorexia nervosa treatment. 

With a mental health disorder as potentially deadly as anorexia nervosa, the margin of error for getting treatment is very small – and that’s why parents need to know what type of treatment is necessary. Just as importantly, the adolescent who gets the treatment also needs to know what to expect when they go in for residential, the most intensive form of treatment.

Day Treatment or Residential Treatment?

The simplest way to determine if an adolescent needs residential anorexia nervosa treatment is to assess the physical and emotional risk they carry. A doctor and psychiatrist should be consulted for an official diagnosis. In the early stages, the signs of anorexia nervosa are often subtle – dieting, excessive exercise, and some weight loss may not seem incredibly harmful, but when they progress, they can endanger their health and even their lives. When the disordered behaviors surrounding the disease are endangering the teen’s life, parents should seek out a residential program.

How to Prepare Teens for Residential Anorexia Nervosa Treatment Programs

Residential treatment centers provide clients with the ideal retreat from their day-to-day lives, making it easy to focus on treatment in a structured and safe setting. This kind of treatment by design removes the adolescent from their life so that all their energy can be focused on recovery.  However, these are major lifestyle changes and can be disruptive – so the teenager and her family should be ready.

What Is Residential Treatment Like?

Residential anorexia nervosa treatment, sometimes called inpatient treatment, isn’t the cold, fluorescent-lit hospital that often pops up in the imagination. That’s a Hollywood misconception. Normally, the facility will be comfortably appointed with furnished rooms and shared spaces, including entertainment rooms, classrooms, and kitchen/dining rooms.  A feeling of safety and comfort is essential for creating a conducive environment for treatment, so quality facilities will feel more like a home than an asylum.

Day-to-day activities are centered around moving steadily forward in treatment. There will be daily therapy sessions, frequent group sessions which allow for peer support and growth, and for adolescents, there are normally educational programs as well. Continuing the teen’s education is key – some of the best centers even have certified teachers on hand to teach classes. Finally, experiential therapies like hiking, gardening, attending concerts or going food shopping also round out the activities involved in residential treatment.

How to Prepare Before Entering an Anorexia Nervosa Treatment Center

Managing expectations – positive and negative – is important for teens about to go into residential treatment for anorexia. Because they will be entering a highly structured environment, teens should understand that they may have designated free time and/or designated phone and visitation hours.

While parents should always listen carefully to their child’s fears, especially when making a major life change like entering residential treatment, they should frame the discussion about treatment in a positive way. This can help calm their nerves and give them an idea of what to expect over the next several weeks. It’s also important to find out what items can and can’t be brought to the facility, and how much outside contact will be allowed.

Some key facts to discuss with teens as they prepare for eating disorder treatment include:

  • The length of the treatment program
  • Therapy options available during treatment
  • How their progress will be monitored
  • When they can expect to phone/visit with family
  • What an average day in treatment may look like

Make Sure to Answer Their Questions

It’s also important to give children the opportunity to ask questions about the recovery process and the benefits of residential treatment programs. Parents should let them voice their concerns and do their best to provide accurate information. If necessary, it’s perfectly acceptable to reach out to the treatment facility for additional information. 

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