Disordered eating—different from eating disorders—is a condition we’re seeing more and more often at Open Sky. While eating disorders may be more commonly understood in our society, disordered eating is less well known. In this episode of the SKYlights Podcast, Senior Clinical Therapist Kirsten Bolt, MED, LMFT helps us better understand this topic, especially as it relates to youth. Kirsten explores the rise of disordered eating; its impacts on physical, emotional, mental, and relational health; how she works with students to build awareness and create change; and what concerned parents can do to approach this topic with their children.
Kirsten is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She graduated from Syracuse University in 1999, Summa Cum Laude, with a BS in Health and Exercise Science. Instead of following her projected course to study Biomechanics, she turned west, seeking something that felt missing. That trip landed her in Utah amid stunning red-rock canyons, wide sandy rivers, and abundant sunshine. Kirsten finds wilderness to be a uniquely powerful setting for young people to connect to themselves, to others, and to their means of contributing to the world.
Her wilderness therapy career began as a field guide in 2004. In that role, she felt drawn to the deeply intimate, interpersonal work that occurred with families, and in 2007 she enrolled at the University of Oregon to complete a graduate degree in Couple and Family Therapy. Her other clinical experiences enable her to understand complex intra- and interpersonal dynamics. Her clinical background includes working at the Center for Family Therapy in Eugene, Oregon, with couples, families, and individuals of all ages experiencing a wide variety of struggles. She facilitated bereavement support groups for elementary-aged children, served high school girls in an impoverished community, led mother-daughter support groups, and provided individual and family therapy services at a center for girls aged 10-18. Kirsten is particularly passionate about family therapy, and she believes family growth is vital in working with young people individually.
Following graduate school, she worked for two years as a wilderness therapist at Aspen Achievement Academy and then, in 2011, joined Open Sky to deepen her holistic approach to wellness. Since then she has worked with adolescent boys and girls, as well as young adult men and women. Kirsten’s expertise and passion manifest most in working with adolescent girls. She works with a wide range of adolescent girls, from clinically complex, treatment-resistant girls with complicated family systems and externalizing behaviors to over-functioning girls who internalize their emotions and hurt themselves as a result. As a family therapist, Kirsten is skilled in clarifying complicated systemic issues and helping formulate a concrete diagnostic assessment. She is supportive of parents who might need extra coaching due to anxiety, grief, and other personal struggles. With her firm and directive approach, Kirsten confronts presenting issues and holds students and families accountable to their therapeutic work, while circumventing the shame that can interfere with progress.
Kirsten evokes peer confrontation and challenge as an additional means to elicit change. Common themes she emphasizes are emotional regulation, assertive communication, identity development, vulnerability, and healthy relationships. She incorporates humor and playfulness and quickly develops strong therapeutic relationships. She works collaboratively and uses the entire treatment team (the family system, Open Sky staff, previous home professionals, educational consultants, etc.) to help students stabilize, assess clinical issues and needs, and treat presenting issues while developing an appropriate longer-term treatment plan. Kirsten incorporates principles of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR) to support students with issues related to emotional dysregulation, trauma, and emerging personality disorders.
Most of Kirsten’s childhood was spent in Maryland, but she also was privileged to spend five years overseas in England and Germany. Still living in Utah, Kirsten finds inspiration observing the landscape, running whitewater rivers, climbing sandstone cracks, mountain biking, trail running, skiing, playing guitar and piano, and spending quality time with her husband, children, dogs, and cats. Kirsten is humbled daily by her personal experiences as a mother, stepmother, and partner, and she believes her clinical work is significantly deeper as a result.
As we see some of the disordered eating patterns take hold, anxiety can increase, depression can increase, which again, can further complicate the relational factors. And so isolation can increase, kids can then start picking up some other unhealthy patterns. They might find themselves engaging in self injury or substance use. There can be other behavioral patterns that they pick up as well. It can also affect one’s executive functioning skills, which affects school and affects vocation and work. I would say that mental health and emotional health tolls exacerbate everything.
I think we so commonly think about disordered eating, we think eating disorders, we think of anorexia, we think of girls. And it’s just not that. There are so many people that are struggling with this. It’s across all populations and demographics.
I think this is something that people are utilizing as a means to cope and manage their emotions. Sometimes it’s about, “This is something I can control where everything else in my life feels out of control, and I feel powerless.” I think that’s a huge contributor.
Food is a way we come together as family and friends. There’s a lot to celebrate about food and as with everything, there can be that double-edged sword.
It’s a starting point to be able to ask direct questions. It conveys, ‘I see you, I’m paying attention, and I care.’ These are really important messages for our kids.
So much of our work out here is helping create awareness and helping create internal motivation for change.
On a wilderness trip in Alaska with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in 1995, Emily discovered she could combine two of her passions: working with youth and being outdoors. Since then, she has worked for Aspen Achievement Academy, Hurricane Island Outward Bound School, and Connecticut Wilderness School. She was part of the founding team at Open Sky.
Emily worked as the lead therapist for adolescent girls for her first 5 years at Open Sky. Her areas of clinical expertise include depression, anxiety, grief and loss, trauma, self-harm, disordered eating, and adoption and attachment issues. Her clinical approach is informed by cognitive behavioral, psychodynamic, family systems, and attachment theories. Relationship building through letter writing is a major focus of her work with students and families.
As a founder and owner of Open Sky, as well as the Clinical and Executive Director, Emily brings a breadth of knowledge with her background as a therapist, field guide, trainer, logistics coordinator, emergency responder, and field director, Emily is known for her direct, caring leadership style, her ability to inspire excellence in others, and her team oriented approach. The student treatment plan is her compass for her decision-making regarding Open Sky’s students, families, and employees.
Emily loves reading, writing, yoga, mountain biking, telemark skiing, rock climbing, spending time with friends and family, and cooking with foods from the local farmers’ market.