Research has shown that the Maudsley Method of Family-Based Treatment (FBT) is more effective than any other treatment for anorexia nervosa (AN) or bulimia nervosa (BN) in patients under age 18. Despite this fact, many clinicians who treat eating disorders are very resistant to using FBT to treat their patients. There are a variety of reasons for this resistance – some legitimate, some personal, some inexcusable, and some bred from ignorance.
Here are some of the most common reasons why clinicians who treat eating disorders are resistant to using FBT, along with my rebuttals to each:
1.) “I work with adults. FBT is not applicable to most adults.”
While FBT has not been adequately studied in adults, the reality is that there are no evidence-based treatments for adults with AN yet. I believe that patients over age 18 need to have loved ones fully informed about their illness and actively involved in their treatment just as much as young patients. The basic principles of FBT (with some age-appropriate modifications) are now being applied to older patients with very promising results.
As Cynthia Bulik’s recent study on Uniting Couples Against Anorexia Nervosa demonstrated, the principles of FBT can be applied very successfully to adults, using spouses or significant others for support rather than parents.
Also, there is some preliminary evidence that a modified version of FBT can be useful for college-aged patients who are temporarily living at home with parents during recovery. There may very well be a time in the not-too-distant future in which a modified form of FBT is an evidence-based treatment for adults.
2.) “Some families can’t do it.”
This statement is absolutely true – some families can’t do it. However, I believe that the true percentage of families who “can’t do it” is actually much smaller than one may think. FBT can be successful in divorced families, step-families, single-parent families, families with many children, families where both parents work full time, and families in which a parent suffers from a mental illness.
The only real contraindications for FBT in patients under18 are cases in which the patient has been physically or sexually abused by a parent, or both parents are so mentally or physically ill that they are unable to care for their children. Both of these contraindications are relatively rare, and even in these cases, one would hope that the patient would be living in a safe environment with other adults (e.g., relatives, foster parents) who could participate in FBT with the patient.
What happens too often is that parents don’t purse FBT because they aren’t aware it exists, or aren’t aware of the evidence behind it. It is also common for parents to be discouraged from doing FBT with their child because the child’s clinician (who is not really familiar with FBT or who doesn’t agree with it) tells the parent that it won’t work for their particular child for some reason.
In sum, I would estimate that maybe 10 % of families really can’t do it (I have no data to support this percentage; it is just an educated guess). The majority of families can do it if they have the proper clinical support and encouragement. The majority of parents love their children immensely and will do anything to help them recover if given the opportunity. It is up to us, the clinicians, to give families that opportunity.
3.) “Some adolescents don’t improve with FBT.”
I have no counterpoint to this one. The reality is that FBT is not effective for everyone. This is not a shortcoming unique to FBT, as there are no treatments that work for 100% of patients. I doubt that there will ever be one treatment that works for everyone in the same diagnostic category, because each individual patient is unique and has their own set of circumstances. Therefore, we must continue to research other forms of treatment and work to improve upon the existing treatments. When a patient does not improve with FBT, we must offer something else – residential treatment, day treatment, cognitive behavioral therapy – whatever is most appropriate for that particular patient and that particular family.
4.) “My training and inclination is as an individual therapist. Making the switch to working with families is intimidating. Learning FBT would be like starting from scratch.”
I don’t see it as starting from scratch. Rather, I see it as adding another (very effective) tool to your existing toolbox. You certainly don’t need to abandon individual therapy just because you’ve added a new treatment to your repertoire.
While some patients will recover fully with FBT and never need individual therapy, most patients do have co-morbid disorders or other issues which need to be addressed with individual therapy. In these cases, individual therapy comes after FBT. Many times I have transitioned to individual therapy with a patient after the patient has successfully recovered with FBT. The great thing about this approach is that the eating disorder has already been fully addressed through FBT, so you and the patient can focus all your time and energy on other things, such as depression, OCD, body image issues, perfectionism, and social difficulties.
5.) “My training is in psychodynamic therapy and relational approaches. FBT is pretty concrete and behavioral. Adopting FBT would seem to remove the very things that made me want to become a therapist in the first place – the focus on depth and the therapeutic relationship.”
FBT is more concrete and behavioral than other types of therapy, and I believe that is part of why it is so effective in treating these malignant illnesses which demand immediate behavioral management in order to save the patient’s health. That being said, the therapeutic relationship is just as essential in FBT as it is in other types of treatment. The parents and the therapist must develop trust in one another, and mutual respect is key, because the parents and therapist are allies working together against the illness on behalf of the child. It is extremely rewarding to be able to offer this kind of assistance and support to terrified, confused, guilt-stricken parents, who blossom with confidence as you educate them about the illness and empower them to do what needs to be done to help their child recover.
And the kids! It is nothing short of amazing to watch the therapeutic relationship evolve and unfold so quickly as recovery progresses. In the first few sessions, the kid typically presents as catatonically depressed, curled up in a fetal position under a blanket, sobbing quietly; or the kid reacts with extreme anger and resistance, yelling and hurling insults and dropping f-bombs before running out of the room. Entire tissue boxes are gone through in one session; stuffed animals need to be placed back on the shelves after being thrown. And within a few months, the kid is smiling, laughing, so happy to see you, chattering on about their trip to Disney World or their new boyfriend or how much they love ‘90’s music exclaiming “Wow, Dr. Ravin, it must have been so cool to be a teenager back in the ‘90’s!” The transformation is astounding.
Furthermore, there is lots of room for a tremendous amount of depth when continuing to work with the patient individually after FBT has been successfully completed. In fact, is even more feasible to go into greater depth in these cases, because the eating disorder is in remission and health-threatening behaviors have long-since been eliminated, so treatment can focus exclusively on other (often more interesting!) issues.
6.) “FBT is agnostic on etiology, and I think etiology is very important.”
Yes, FBT is agnostic with regards to etiology. In other words, the clinician states clearly at the outset of treatment that we don’t know exactly what causes eating disorders, and that it is not relevant for the purposes of this treatment. I believe this agnostic stance is one of the strengths of FBT: it does not waste time on “why” but instead focuses on “how” to help the patient recover.
I agree that etiology is very important because our ideas about etiology (for better or for worse) have a huge impact on how we treat patients. Therefore, clinicians and researchers must continue to have professional discussions about etiology amongst themselves.
My concern is not the discussion of etiology amongst professionals in the field. Rather, my concerns are 1.) When clinicians have a particular presumption about etiology which is not consistent with recent scientific evidence, 2.) When that particular presumption guides the use of treatments that are less effective, and 3.) When those presumptions about etiology cause harm to patients and their families by subtly or overtly blaming the patient or the family.
In my opinion, when clinicians discuss etiology with patients and their families, these discussions should be limited to the following points:
A.) Clarifying that neither the patient nor the family is to blame for the illness.
B.) Dispelling common myths about etiology (e.g., media, control issues, overprotective parents)
C.) Discussing the “Four P’s:” predisposing factors (e.g., genetic predisposition), precipitating factors (e.g., weight loss through dieting or illness), perpetuating factors (e.g., malnutrition has a calming and mood-elevating effect on those who are vulnerable to eating disorders), and prognostic factors (e.g., importance of early and aggressive intervention, maintenance of optimal body weight).
This is all the information patients and families need to know about etiology, because let’s be frank: this is all we really know about etiology. Anything else is just a distraction.