Several conversations I have had lately with mothers prompted me to write this post regarding parenting around food. There is an extensive amount of controversy over how to handle food and weight with children. The following opinions are based on the extensive experience I have had with parents, children, adolescents, and older teens. Since I am a nutrition therapist specializing in eating disorders, I see those individuals who have had a multitude of negative experiences around the issues of food and weight.
I’ll begin by recounting a story from the first mom I spoke with this past week. Her 13 year old daughter, “Abby”, came to her and said she was unhappy with her weight and wanted to lose a few pounds. Abby would be described as a normal weight girl by “normal” standards, but as a slightly overweight girl by the media’s unrealistic standards. Her mother said she approved of Abby’s plan to lose weight and would help Abby accomplish her goals. She told Abby to write down everything she ate so Abby could assess her portions sizes, and also recommended that she cut out “junk food”. This all seems innocent enough…except for a couple problems.
- Abby is 13 years old, which is right in the middle of growth and development. During growth and development, a girl’s body often gets a little larger prior to a growth period. It also gets larger prior to the onset of menstruation. This is normal and should not be interrupted.
- Abby is influenced by an array of negative, misguided and often inaccurate influences such as dieting peers, magazines and other forms of media that present a constant unrealistic source for body and weight comparison and dissatisfaction, and a constant barrage of internet sources that tout all types of unhealthy forms of dieting. All these sources of misinformation may cause Abby to take her innocent diet too far or in a direction that could be harmful.
- Abby is not going to be under the supervision of a qualified nutrition professional that can help her through the process, therefore all her decisions will be made by herself and as a result of all the “outside influences”. This is a breeding ground for arbitrary, unhealthy rule-making.
- Dieting at any age is the number one behavior that leads to an eating disorder. Dieting at age 13 is tremendously risky.
The second mother I encountered this past week did some research on a particular method of eating that has been shown to have value in certain populations such as those with learning and developmental disabilities such as autism-spectrum disorders. As far as I know (I do not have all the information regarding her children), none of her four children have any type of learning or developmental issue. The reason I tell this story is because I have encountered many mothers who change their children’s diets drastically for one “good” reason or another and many (not all) children react in a very negative, adaptive way. This mother restricted all breads and other wheat products, as well as all other grains from her children’s diets. I reiterate that I am not writing this post to discuss the pros and cons of any type of eating plan, just to illustrate the effect on children of drastic eating changes. These children frequently come over to my house to visit, and the family dines with ours a couple times a month. The mother made me aware of the changes she was making to her children’s diet so I prepared meals that included a number of options that they were permitted by their mother to eat. I also included grains and breads for my family to eat, if they desired. On every single occasion the children have been at my house, they have “snuck” some type of bread or other grain while their mother wasn’t looking. I hadn’t been paying much attention at first, but my children pointed it out to me because they were worried the other children would get reprimanded by their mother and wanted to let me know that they were not encouraging nor discouraging the other children to eat any of the “forbidden” foods. They would sneak bread at meal time and would “raid” the cabinets for cookies and other snack foods. Whenever my children would notice, the other children would say “shhhh…don’t tell my mom.”
This mother’s intentions are to help her children but unknowingly, she is helping create a disordered relationship between her children and food. It would be my assumption that they are “sneaking” food in other places as well as my house. They may be feeling deprived of the foods they are not permitted to have in their home. The mother thinks her children are eating in one way when in fact they are eating in another.
I see another phenomenon over and over in my practice. Parents call me to tell me that their child is sneaking food. They find wrappers and all sorts of food paraphernalia hidden in couch cushions, dresser drawers, backpacks, garbage cans, etc. Their solution is to make the food environment even more restrictive, their child becomes even more creative in finding ways to get food, and the disordered relationship between the child and food worsens. If the child has the tendency to appear to the parents as “overweight”, the parents often become overly restrictive with food, reprimand the child for eating “too much”, criticize the child for his/her weight, and create unfair food rules for the child that the other children in the family don’t have to follow (if they are perceived to be of normal weight). An enormous amount of energy is spent by the parents trying to “control” the child’s eating, creating a stressful environment for all, especially for the child. The child ends up feeling deprived and becomes obsessed with food leading to a non-intuitive dysregulated relationship with food.
A (well intentioned) dad once said to me that he was demanding his 9 year old daughter spend at least 45 minutes on the treadmill each day because she was developing a “stomach”. He was so concerned that she would become an overweight teen and then an overweight adult. He insisted that if he didn’t “help” her, she would be bullied and have no friends. I met this little girl. She looked like a beautiful 9 year old girl. She had a little roundness to her stomach, as many little pre-pubescent girls do. There was nothing noteworthy about her appearance. I later found out that the dad had been bullied as a child and became an avid exerciser to cope with his negative experiences. I expressed my concerns to the dad. I explained to him that it was my opinion that his daughter was just fine and did not need to be on the treadmill to “get rid of her stomach”. I explained that she was perfectly normal. She was probably going to get a little wider before she grew taller and experienced puberty. If allowed to eat a wide variety of foods and experience movement in a way that she enjoyed, she would not be doomed to a life of being bullied and having no friends. She would hopefully develop a healthy relationship with herself and food and he would be better off supporting her in all ways, instead of worrying excessively about her physical appearance.
A dad came to see me to discuss his picky eater. This dad was one of the most intelligent men I have ever met. He had numerous degrees and was very well respected among his peers. He said his daughter ate only a few foods and he was desperate to improve her variety of choices and help her develop a more “sophisticated palate”. I asked him what methods he had already tried to help his daughter. He had only tried two…force feeding and bribery. For every new food she tried and liked, he would give her money. If she tried it and didn’t like it, she’d get no money. If she didn’t try it, she’d get no money. If it was put in front of her and she didn’t want to try it, he would force her to eat a bite by actually forcing it in her mouth. My first thought was “Oh my goodness. This poor child is in a bad situation.” My second thought was “Intelligence sure doesn’t equate to good parenting with food.” He was shocked that I disagreed with his methods. I gave him some helpful suggestions, mostly regarding giving his daughter the power to make her own choices, not making them for her. I also told him not to pressure her in any way. She would not develop a “sophisticated palate” via any of his methods. The only things that these methods would create would be disordered feelings about food, and food aversions. I informed him that the worst thing that might happen if he gave her more freedom and less pressure would be that she would continue to be a picky eater. I also suggested that he invest some of the “bribe money” in a good full-spectrum multivitamin for her so that she wouldn’t develop any vitamin/mineral deficiencies.
None of these parents are bad people. They clearly love their children and want them to be healthy and happy. They are possibly misguided or ill-advised. Perhaps their own issues have clouded their judgment regarding parenting around food.
It is always important, as a parent, to put extensive thought into the actions you take regarding your children’s diet. Bear in mind that a child’s perception is his/her reality. If the child feels deprived or hungry, he/she will take strong measures to meet his/her needs. If a child is receiving negative or mixed messages at home and in his/her outside environment, he/she may not have the skills to decipher between what is healthy and what is unhealthy. Messages may be internalized and create distorted thoughts and feelings about his/herself.
Force feeding creates long term food aversions. Deprivation creates powerful cravings and rebound overeating. Try to remove your own food/weight issues from the decisions you impose upon your children. If you are on any type of diet, be careful how you speak about food around your children. Be especially careful about the language you use about your own body and the bodies of others. I treated a 5 year old girl once who was convinced that her thighs were fat because she heard her mother repeatedly say that her thighs were fat. If you are constantly popping on the bathroom scale and commenting negatively about your weight, you are teaching your child that it is normal to base his/her self-worth on the number on the scale.
A great resource for parents is http://www.ellynsatter.com/. Ellyn Satter is a pioneer in the topic of parenting with food. She has written several books that are very informative and helpful. On her website are informative handouts for all types of issues around parenting with food.
Ultimately, when parents lay the groundwork for their children’s relationship with food and relationship with themselves, they need to use extreme caution, insight and sensitivity.Share on Facebook