Family-based Treatment of Adolescent Anorexia Nervosa:
The Maudsley Approach
Daniel Le Grange, PhD and James Lock, MD, PhD
Family Based Therapy/The Maudsley Approach
The Maudsley approach can mostly be construed as an intensive outpatient treatment where parents play an active and positive role in order to: Help restore their child’s weight to normal levels expected given their adolescent’s age and height; hand the control over eating back to the adolescent, and; encourage normal adolescent development through an in-depth discussion of these crucial developmental issues as they pertain to their child.
More ‘traditional’ treatment of Anorexia Nervosa (AN) suggests that the clinician’s efforts should be individually based. Strict adherents to the perspective of only individual treatment will insist that the participation of parents, whatever the format, is at best unnecessary, but worse still interference in the recovery process. In fact, many proponents of this approach would consider ‘family problems’ as part of the etiology of the AN. No doubt, this view might contribute to parents feeling themselves to blame for their child’s illness. The Maudsley Approach opposes the notion that families are pathological or should be blamed for the development of AN. On the contrary, the Maudsley Approach considers the parents as a resource and essential in successful treatment for AN.
Phase I: Weight restoration
The Maudsley Approach proceeds through three clearly defined phases, and is usually conducted within 15-20 treatment sessions over a period of about 12 months. In Phase I, also referred to as the weight restoration phase, the therapist focuses on the dangers of severe malnutrition associated with AN, such as hypothermia, growth hormone changes, cardiac dysfunction, and cognitive and emotional changes to name but a few, assessing the family’s typical interaction pattern and eating habits, and assisting parents in re-feeding their daughter or son. The therapist will make every effort to help the parents in their joint attempt to restore their adolescent’s weight. At the same time, the therapist will endeavor to align the patient with her/his siblings. At no point should this phase of treatment be interpreted as a ‘green light’ for parents to be critical of their child. Quite the contrary, the therapist will work hard to address any parental criticism or hostility toward the adolescent.
Phase II: Returning control over eating to the adolescent
The patient’s acceptance of parental demand for increased food intake, steady weight gain, as well as a change in the mood of the family (i.e., relief at having taken charge of the eating disorder), all signal the start of Phase II of treatment.
This phase of treatment focuses on encouraging the parents to help their child to take more control over eating once again. The therapist advises the parents to accept that the main task here is the return of their child to physical health, and that this now happens mostly in a way that is in keeping with their child’s age and their parenting style. Although symptoms remain central in the discussions between the therapist and the family, weight gain with minimum tension is encouraged. In addition, all other general family relationship issues or difficulties in terms of day-to-day adolescent or parenting concerns that the family has had to postpone can now be brought forward for review. This, however, occurs only in relationship to the effect these issues have on the parents in their task of assuring steady weight gain. For example, the patient may want to go out with her friends to have dinner and a movie. However, while the parents are still unsure whether their child would eat entirely on her own accord, she might be required to have dinner with her parents and then be allowed to join friends for a movie.
Phase III: Establishing healthy adolescent identity
Phase III is initiated when the adolescent is able to maintain weight above 95% of ideal weight on her/his own and self-starvation has abated. Treatment focus starts to shift to the impact AN has had on the individual establishing a healthy adolescent identity. This entails a review of central issues of adolescence and includes supporting increased personal autonomy for the adolescent, the development of appropriate parental boundaries, as well as the need for the parents to reorganize their life together after their children’s prospective departure.
There is no magic cure, no making it go away forever. There are only small steps upward; an easier day, an unexpected laugh, a mirror that doesn’t matter anymore.
Laurie Halse Anderson
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