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Nurses and the ‘therapeutic relationship’: caring for adolescents with anorexia nervosa


Lucie Ramjan,
School of Applied Social and Human Sciences,
University of Western Sydney,
Locked Bag 1797,
Penrith South DC,
NSW 1797,


Background.  Research studies suggest that hospital programmes for young people diagnosed with anorexia nervosa have high readmission rates and limited effectiveness. Nurses caring for these adolescents face a particular set of problems in seeking to establish therapeutic relationships.

Aim.  This paper reports a study with the original aim of providing rich data on the development of therapeutic relationships between adolescents diagnosed with anorexia and paediatric nurses. However, it was discovered that paediatric nurses were struggling to develop therapeutic alliances with these adolescents. The study was then modified to explore the difficulties and obstacles hindering the formation of therapeutic relationships in this context.

Method.  The study used naturalistic inquiry. The 10 participants were Registered Nurses from the acute wards of an Australian children's hospital with at least 2 years’ experience of caring for adolescents with anorexia nervosa. The data were collected using semi-structured interviews that were recorded on audiotape and then thematically analysed both manually and with the aid of the NUD*IST computer package.

Findings.  Participants described how they struggled to develop therapeutic relationships in this clinical environment. Three themes emerged: (1) ‘Struggling for understanding’ explores the difficulties nurses experienced in coming to terms with the complexities of a diagnosis of anorexia nervosa and its recovery processes. (2) ‘Struggling for control’ examines the power struggle between nurses and patients and the mutual distrust that often developed between them as a consequence of this struggle. (3) ‘Struggling to develop therapeutic relationships’ describes the difficulties some nurses had in establishing therapeutic alliances with these adolescents.

Conclusion.  Recommendations are made for improving the nursing component of hospital treatment programmes for adolescents with anorexia nervosa in the direction of more genuinely therapeutic relationships.