Kids Who Won't Eat: How to Help Children with Eating Disorders

An Intense Treatment

Today, Maria Adams credits a lot of home cooking and focused family meals for helping her anorexic daughter learn to enjoy food again. From the psychologist recommended by Lily's pediatrician, she learned about the Maudsley Method, a treatment approach that top specialists and advocacy organizations (including NEDA) consider to be especially successful in helping children, particularly those who have at least one parent who's able to be with them all day long. It required Adams, who also has a younger son, to prepare and oversee all of Lily's meals and forbid her daughter to leave the table unless she consumed a set number of calories that had been determined by her pediatrician, who weighed Lily weekly to track her progress. The theory behind Maudsley: Malnourishment triggers illogical thinking, leading to more starvation and frenzied exercise; it's only when a child returns to a normal weight that she'll be able to respond to her natural hunger cues and reflect on her quest for thinness. Says Adams, "My mantra became, 'Food is your medicine.'"

When Lily's psychologist helped Adams realize that her own determination to eat only healthy foods might have been counterproductive in her daughter's recovery, she began to relax her rules and serve a greater variety of foods to the entire family. The early weeks were excruciating: Lily cried constantly and would often scream, "You're making me fat!" Her mom had to lock the door during meals to prevent her from running out of the house. "One day, I put a bowl of ice cream in front of her for dessert," she recalls. Six hours later, Lily downed the last soupy drop.

Within three months, Lily gained 25 pounds, returning to the 70th percentile for her age. "As soon as she hit the point where her body was naturally supposed to be, it was as if all those crazy behaviors started melting away," says Adams. During that school year, Lily got permission to eat all her meals at home -- including lunch -- but gradually, she needed less and less coaxing to eat.

Now a healthy eighth-grader, Lily plays soccer, swims competitively, and talks openly with her mother about body-image hang-ups when they arise. While Adams knows that anorexia is a chronic illness, she's grateful that she -- and Lily -- can now deal with a potential relapse and fight it. "Am I sad that my child had to deal with such a grown-up problem at such a young age? Yes," she says. "But I'm glad we caught it when we did."

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