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Family Therapy

What is family therapy?

Family therapy is a treatment approach that can address a range of issues and themes within the family system.  Many families find it helpful to spend time on how to make their home environment most conducive to recovery, in addition to discussing topics that address everyday challenges.  Additionally, this approach can also create an opportunity to learn more about communication strategies, so that families as a whole can identify ways to establish more balance and peace within their family relationships.

Specifically, sessions can:

  • guide family members in learning how to best support their loved ones,
  • identify specific strategies and tools regarding effective methods of support during meals and/or snacks,
  • assist parents in working together as a parental unit, so that there is agreement regarding important treatment related issues, and
  • teach all family members stress management skills.

Similar to other treatment methods utilized in eating disorder recovery, there is no one specific “reason” that all families indicate when deciding whether or not to enter into a family therapy.  With that being said, we know that family therapy can be greatly beneficial to the majority of families, and at various times in the healing process.

I have heard family therapy was for working on major family issues - is this true?

The primary goal is to help families work together for more harmony and connection.  Along the way to that goal, issues may come up or be unearthed, but they come up not because anyone is searching for them, but because they need to be addressed to reach better functioning, communication, and well being for the family.  A family therapist will decide based on experience and knowledge what to address when things unfold, and how to work within the family based on the dynamics of their particular situation.

How do you approach the topic of entering therapy?

Whether you are a parent looking to engage in family therapy with your child, or you are a young adult/adult looking to address issues or concerns with your family members, the approach remains the same.  Rather than implying that a family member need helps or to address things, it is often helpful to say something like, “It would really help me if you could attend family therapy”, “I think going to family therapy would help to improve our relationship”, or some variation on those approaches.

What is the best way to find a family therapist to work with?

If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are already connected to an individual therapist or other professional (i.e. nutritionist, physician) it is recommended that you speak with your provider first about family therapy as an option for you and your family. Your current provider may have colleagues that she/he works with who could then provide a referral to one of these practitioners.

If you do not yet have access to a therapist or other team member, you can contact the National Eating Disorders Association’s Helpline, at (800) 931-2237, or go the website ED Referral, which has listings of practitioners in each state, that can enhance your ability to locate eating disorder specialists in your area.

How does one determine which family therapist will be the best fit for their family?

There are various theories, styles, and approaches that family therapists utilize in their practice.  Therefore, it can be helpful to ask a potential family therapist if they have a particular theoretical orientation that they subscribe to in their clinical work.  Also, you can inquire about what a typical family session will look like, if you are thinking of starting this process with a specific therapist.

When you initially speak with a clinician, it would be important to share some of your recent struggles within your family system.  The next step would be to ask how the therapist would recommend starting a course of therapy, based on what you have shared thus far.

It is also very important to pay attention to how it feels for you as you communicate with a potential therapist.  Choosing a family therapist is an individualized experience that encompasses both the knowledge gained from the clinician with regards to his/her style, orientation, feedback, etc., as well as the sense of connection that you feel as you discuss these components.  Therapists have many different styles- some will lead by being comforting and instructional, others might have more of a direct approach.  It is important to find the provider that feels most comfortable to you.

Do all family members need to attend family therapy sessions in order for them to be effective?

Family therapy can certainly be effective, even if some members of the family are unable to participate.  This would be an important question to ask a potential therapist as she/he would want to think through the circumstances of your family, in order to determine which family members should be in the sessions at the onset of treatment, and over time.

What resources are out there for families in need of support?

Families Empowered and Supporting Treatment of Eating Disorders  (F.E.A.S.T.)
F.E.A.S.T. is a non-profit organization of and for parents and caregivers to help loved ones recover from eating disorders.  This site provides information, mutual support, and evidence-based treatment, in addition to research and education in order to reduce the suffering associated with eating disorders.  Services include informational resources and Around the Dinner Table, an on-line forum for parents and carers that support families who have a loved one struggling with an eating disorder.

Hope Network 
Hope Network supports and educates families through workshops, links to resources, tele-classes and individual support.   Tele-classes provide a space for parents to explore feelings and get help with one of life’s most challenging experiences: being a family member of someone with an eating disorder.  Parents will learn from professionals and peers who have experience in moving forward with their lives during these illnesses.

NEDA Navigators
The Parent, Family and Friends Network of the National Eating Disorders Association have established the NEDA Navigator Program.  Navigators are volunteers that have experience navigating the complex and overwhelming systems and emotions involved with the diagnosis and process of seeking help for an eating disorder.  Volunteers are trained by an eating disorders professional and NEDA staff to be a knowledgeable, informal source of support and guidance to those who are new to the illness.  Navigators are not treatment professionals and do not provide mental health services.  To locate a NEDA Navigator in your area, click here.

Are there organizations that exist which can assist my family and I, if wanting to begin family therapy?

The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) is the professional association for the field of marriage and family therapy.  This organization provides a helpful resource through their website, Family Therapy Resources.net, which is a comprehensive source of information about family therapy and other family-related issues.  In addition, they maintain a family therapist directory, which can be found by clicking here.  


Anne Robinson, LICSW
Dawn Hynes, MSW