Last Wellness Dialogue of the Year: Being Well While Doing Well

May 19, 2015; Notes by Carin Barbanel

Dr. Alison Ferst hosted this last Wellness Dialogue of the year. The discussion was on food, eating, and body-image. Questions and suggestions were shared in a warm, supportive way.

As summer approaches, some of our kids enter into the season of ‘compare and despair.’ They are looking at others (siblings, peers, and/or images in the media) and comparing themselves, often to distorted and impossible to achieve ideals, feeling inadequate, despairing, or employing drastic means in an attempt to “measure up”.  

Eating issues are often marked by elements of control. Feeling out of control emotionally, or in other areas of life, control over food can feel soothing and organizing. Adolescents are in the process of asserting independence, which includes independence and autonomy over their eating and their bodies. “It’s my body and I’ll feed it what I want”.  Depersonalizing the issue, and reframing the issue as a societal or family problem are techniques that have worked for many families.

Some thoughts expressed by parents on how to help our children to accept who they are and make healthy choices:

  • Disengage from the conversation. Seemingly relaxed nonintervention can take the power struggle out of the equation.
  • Be an informed consumer. Discuss with your kids the politics, marketing, and environmental aspects of the food, eating, and beauty industry.
  • Vanity can be a big motivator for healthy eating.  Know the impact of poor nutrition--people who don’t eat properly can have skin, hair, dental, and other health issues as they grow.
  • Encourage your child to find in school peer support for issues of eating and body image. For example, SHAPES, the student run club whose acronym stands for Strategic Help for Putting Eating Second.
  • Kids can often eat poorly in their attempt to find cheap eats on the go. Strategize with kids, helping them to identify lunch places near school that have better options for your child, particularly for kids struggling with health issues related to poor eating.
  • Suggest that your child bring more lunches from home instead of eating out. Frame this as a money issue. Saying, “We’re spending too much on lunches out,” is easier to hear than health concerns.
  • Many students bring lunch from home but eat at restaurants with their friends, just buying a drink. Local establishments are used to this and your child will not be odd man out.
  • Picky eaters are a struggle. Purchase foods that you know have some appeal. Leave them for kids to eat versus carefully crafting a meal. Get your kids involved in cooking meals that they enjoy.
  • Ask if they’d like to learn to make a dish they always eat at their cousin’s home, or make it with you.
  • Make the need to improve diet a family affair. “Let’s all write down everything we eat, parents and siblings included, no judgement, just data collection.” From that, enjoin your child in creating a healthier menu.
  • Making food changes is difficult for everyone. A focus on adding in healthy components, rather than on deprivation and limiting can be helpful.  “Let’s eat salad and fries with our burgers.”
  • Treat your child as you would like to be treated.

Control is valuable, and your child might use control over food to feel powerful. If your child can tell that you are speaking from real emotion, not control, your message is more likely to be considered. Some kids will seem unmoved and the path can be scary. Modeling healthy behaviors and providing healthy foods is a great step. If you do get to a point of deep concern, bring in professionals.

Please remember: Change is hard! Take it on as family, not just as one person’s problem.

It’s really hard to know what someone else is doing with their food separate from their life together at home.