Treatments for Eating Disorder in Children

Eating disorders are usually treated with a combination of:

  • individual therapy (usually including both cognitive and behavioral techniques)
  • family therapy
  • nutritional rehabilitation
  • behavior modification

Medication may be helpful. It's important to remember that family members play a vital supportive role in any treatment process.

The Eating Disorders Program at Boston Children's Hospital

Children's Eating Disorders Program is committed to helping you, your child and your family at every step of the treatment process. The program uses a multidisciplinary approach for evaluation and treatment to help formulate an individualized treatment plan and make preliminary recommendations that will work best for your child's individual needs and circumstances.

Providers in our Eating Disorders Program see both inpatients and outpatients —about 200 new cases annually. As outpatients, adolescents are seen by a physician from Children's Division of Adolescent Medicine, as well as a dietician. Your child will also see a psychologist or social worker with whom you can meet separately. Your doctor will recommend follow-up visits if necessary.

If your child becomes really sick—her condition gets worse, causing unstable vital signs, for example—she will be admitted to the hospital. Inpatients are placed on the hospital's "Restrictive Eating" clinical practice guideline. This means they meet with the same types of caregivers as an outpatient would, while participating in a special meal plan with customized weight gain goals.

What to expect at your appointment

While no patient's experience is exactly like another, below is a general idea of what you will experience when your child has an appointment in the Children's Eating Disorders Program.

What to bring

Please bring contact information for any providers your child is seeing (therapist, nutritionist, pediatricians).

Your first appointment

Your initial consultation will include:

  1. A medical evaluation by a doctor skilled in adolescent medicine and eating disorder treatment. The doctor will assess your child's health by checking her height, weight, blood pressure, pulse and temperature, and will determine the severity of any existing medical complications she may have. Our doctor will contact your child's primary care provider to help coordinate care.
  2. A mental health consultation with a counselor experienced in treating adolescent eating disorders. Fighting back against these disorders requires improving your child's body image and self-esteem and addressing other emotional issues.
  3. A nutrition evaluation with a dietician. This can help you and your child create a safe eating plan and answer questions about food. Teens receive many mixed messages in a culture obsessed with fast food, dieting and body image. The dietician can discuss some of these harmful myths, and help your child design an individualized guide to achieving healthy eating and healthy living.

Your additional appointments

After the initial evaluation, the Eating Disorders Program will help you set up appropriate treatment. The program works with primary care providers to ensure a comprehensive treatment program. Referrals to local health care providers, as well as to providers At Boston Children's Hospital, are available.

Treatment may involve:

  • Ongoing individual and family therapy
  • Medical monitoring
  • Nutritional support

Coping and support

It's essential to remember that while learning that your child is struggling with an eating disorder can feel very isolating, many children and their families have been down this path before. We've helped them, and we can help you, too.

There are lots of resources available for your family—within Children's, in the outside community and online. These include:

Patient education: From the very first visit, our staff will be on hand to walk you through your child's treatment and help answer any questions you may have. And they'll also reach out to you by phone, continuing the care and support you received while at Children's.

Parent to parent: Want to talk with someone else whose teen has been treated for an eating disorder? We can put you in touch with other families who have been through similar experiences and can share their stories.

Faith-based support: If you are in need of spiritual support, we'll help connect you with the Children's chaplaincy. Our program includes nearly a dozen clergy representing Episcopal, Jewish, Lutheran, Muslim, Roman Catholic, Unitarian and United Church of Christ traditions who will listen to you, pray with you and help you observe your own faith practices during the time you and your child are in the hospital.

Social work and mental health professionals: Our social workers and mental health clinicians have helped many other families in your situation. We can offer counseling and assistance with issues such as coping with your child's diagnosis, stresses relating to coping with illness and dealing with financial difficulties.

On our For Patients and Families site, you can read all you need to know about:

  • getting to Children's
  • accommodations
  • navigating the hospital experience
  • resources that are available for your family

Children's Behavioral Medicine Clinic helps children who are being treated on an outpatient basis at the hospital—as well as their families—understand and cope with their feelings about:

  • being sick
  • handling pain
  • taking medication
  • changes in friendships and family relationships
  • managing school while dealing with an illness
  • grief and loss

Children's Psychiatry Consultation Service is comprised of expert and compassionate pediatric psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and other mental health professionals who understand the unique circumstances of hospitalized children and their families. The team provides several services, including:

  • short-term therapy for children admitted to one of our inpatient units
  • parent and sibling consultations
  • teaching healthy coping skills for the whole family
  • educating members of the medical treatment team about the relationship between physical illness and psychological distress

Children's Department of Psychiatry offers a free booklet, “Helping Your Child with Medical Experiences: A Practical Parent Guide”. (Please note that Adobe Acrobat is required to view and download the guide.) Topics in the booklet include:

  • talking to your child about his or her condition
  • preparing for surgery and hospitalization
  • supporting siblings
  • taking care of yourself during your child's illness
  • adjusting to life after treatment
    Multidisciplinary care

    One frequently used treatment for eating disorders involves an interdisciplinary team approach, involving a medical provider, dietician (with experience in treating eating disorders) and a mental health professional.