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Are You Helping your Kids to Cultivate a Healthy Relationship with Food – or Setting Them Up for Struggle? – Part II

Tuesday, October 21, 2014 Leave a Comment

By Annette Sloan

In the first post of this series, we learned why it’s best to avoid labeling foods as “good” and “bad.” Instead, parents can explain that there are “foods we eat more often” and “foods we eat less often.” This removes morality from the picture and stops us from connecting our self-worth with what we eat.

Our next DON’T and DO stem from my professional experience as a health coach for teen girls. This dynamic plays out when well-meaning parents try to guide their kids towards moderation and healthy choices. For the sake of simplicity, I refer to girls in this post, although this is certainly an issue that can affect boys as well.

DON’T: Make judgmental comments about what’s on your daughter’s plate.

“Do you really need another serving?” “Are you sure you want to eat that piece of cake?” “Wow, you must be really hungry.”

Before we dive into why these types of comments are harmful, I first want you to know that I get it. If one of your kids is on the heavy side, you want to do everything you can to help her reach a healthy weight. You know that life can be socially harder for heavy kids. And you worry about her future if she continues to gain weight into adulthood. Or, on the flip side, perhaps you have a healthy-weight daughter who is a dancer, gymnast, cheerleader – anything in that camp. For better or for worse, bodies that look a certain way are basically required in those arenas. You want your daughter to excel, which means fitting in with the norm.

Regardless of the undoubtedly valid reasons you have for expressing concern about what’s on your daughter’s plate, your comments are not doing any good. Even if they result in her eating less in that particular instance, in the long term, you’re most likely giving her a food complex. You’re telling her that she’s only “good” when she eats healthy foods in moderation. Even worse, the underlying message is that she is unworthy if her body is too big.

I’ve seen this dynamic play out first-hand. When we first started working together, Abby* (not her real name), a quiet, empathetic 16-year-old client, shared with me that she can’t remember ever NOT stressing about healthy eating. Her well-intentioned mom, who struggled with her weight when she was younger, had been adamant since Abby was born that her daughter would not have to face the same battle. She stressed healthy eating (and made comments about unhealthy choices) throughout Abby’s childhood. Over time, these comments led Abby to feel bad about herself – and then, paradoxically, she would seek comfort in food.

When I first met Abby, she expressed her frustration with her eating habits, telling me, “Every day I wake up telling myself that I will eat healthy today. But later in the day, it’s like my mind just turns off, and I find myself eating junk.” At the time, she had no idea why this habit had such a strong hold on her, and she beat herself up for being weak and unable to control her desire for junk food.

We’ve been working together for three months, and Abby is now beginning to understand the reasons behind her eating behaviors. Her mom’s constant comments created a deeply ingrained belief that her worthiness was connected with her weight and with how healthy (or unhealthy) her food choices were. (See Part 1 of this series). Whenever she felt stressed or unworthy, junk food was an easy source of comfort, made even more appealing by the fact that it was, on some level, “off limits.”

Abby now knows, intellectually, that her worthiness is not dependent on her weight or on what she eats. And she’s getting closer all the time to really believing this truth on a soul level – which is allowing her to slowly let go of her need to use food for comfort. Abby also found the courage to have an honest conversation with her mom, who has backed off and is now giving her daughter the space to find her own way.

[Side note: Please keep in mind that there is no room for blame in this situation. Abby’s mom was doing what she thought was best to help her daughter thrive. Now, with a new understanding, she’s taking a different approach. This is the journey we are all on – doing our best, learning from our mistakes, and making changes as we grow.]

DO: Model a healthy attitude, and make it easy and desirable for the whole family to eat well.

So, how do you encourage your kids to eat healthfully without giving them a complex? My suggestion is two-fold. First, try to model a healthy attitude. I like to think about it in terms of the 80/20 rule. A habit is something we’re doing 80% of the time. If you exercise on 8 out of 10 days, exercising is the norm, and your body will experience great benefit from that habit. Likewise, if you eat healthy foods 80% of the time, healthy eating is your habit, and your habits are what determine your long-term outcomes. What you do the other 20% of the time will have little impact on the big picture.

Practice modeling the attitudes of “I choose healthy foods most of the time because they give me energy and allow me to thrive,” AND “Sometimes I eat foods for the sole reason that they taste amazing – and that’s a valid choice as well.” Try not to express remorse or the idea that you’ve been “bad” when your choices aren’t so healthy. If you eat a cookie (or a few), enjoy them, and then move on to the next life experience. Keep in mind that your habits – what you do 80% of the time – will be the biggest determiner of your outcomes. The other 20% of the time? Enjoy, then let it go. [Note: I am not advocating gluttony here – but I do encourage you to allow yourself to take pleasure in foods that delight you, in a way that nourishes you on a soul level].

My second suggestion is to make the healthy choice the easy choice. Full disclosure: when I open the fridge and see fresh fruit, or carrots and hummus, or other healthy snacks I enjoy, it’s easy to choose them – unless I know that there are cookies in the pantry. If I know that there cookies in the pantry, I will most likely not even stop to consider the healthy options. Let’s face it – it’s much harder to make a healthy choice when tempting unhealthy options are readily available. My strategy to overcome this scenario? Simple: I rarely keep unhealthy foods around. When they’re not around, I don’t even think about them, and I’m totally content with my apple and almonds. Do your family the same favor – make the healthy choice the easy and desirable one.

In Part III of this series, Annette Sloan will share a third essential DO and DON’T for helping kids to cultivate a healthy relationship with food. Her business, (w)holehearted, specializes in compassionate health coaching for teen girls. She also offers mother-daughter bonding sessions that incorporate yoga, positive body image, and a healthy relationship with food. Learn more (and download your free report, “The Savvy Parent: Five Essential Practices for Role-Modeling a Happy, Healthy Relationship with Food,”) at www.healthyteengirls.com.