Category Archives: For Parents

Are Your Child’s Eating Issues Eating at You?

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

There are many complex reasons why your child might be eating more food than his or her body needs. Stuffing down difficult emotions is a top contender. Believing unkind thoughts can also cause overeating in an attempt to quiet a busy mind. Some kids eat more than they need out of habit, or as an addictive response to certain foods. Our super-sized culture doesn’t help matters much as it markets bigger portions and free refills at every turn. And last but not least, overeating is a natural response to undereating (which, of course, is not what the multi-billion dollar diet industry tells us!) So if your child has had periods of dieting or restricting certain foods, this also may be contributing to their overeating.

As a family therapist, I work with many kids who are struggling with their weight. They are surrounded by enticing ads for high fat, high carb foods that will indeed fill them… temporarily. They are living in a sedentary culture that encourages computer games more than fresh air. Many kids today know more about their iPhones, iPods and iPads than they do about their own feelings and needs. If your child is one of the millions who struggles with overeating, here are some tips for you to consider:

Medication Evaluation– If your child’s weight gain coincides with taking (or recently changing) a medication, consider speaking to the prescribing physician and/or getting educated about all the potential side effects of the medication they are on. Some meds can cause people to feel ravenously hungry. It’s important to weigh out (pun partially intended!) the pros and cons of each medication your child is taking.

Shame-Free Zone– If your child is struggling with their weight, they are most likely feeling a lot of shame about it already, so it’s important to have any discussions about this sensitive topic when you are not around food or other people. Talking about food or weight while your child is eating or in front of others is likely to increase their sense of shame (which may also be one of the feelings they are trying to soothe with excess food).

Other tips for decreasing shame around food are:

a. Don’t blatantly stare or glare at your child while they are eating. Give them the respect that you would want if you were struggling with something difficult or painful.

b. Don’t talk or joke about food or how much your child eats.

c. Avoid comments about “good” or “bad” foods. This can set them up to phobically fear and/or rebelliously binge on certain foods.

d. Don’t make judgments about your weight, their weight or other people’s weight. This can lead to negatively competitive feelings and unnecessary or exaggerated self-criticism.

At any point, if your child comments about feeling overweight, being teased, feeling out of shape, etc., notice their language and use it when broaching the subject later on. For example, “You have mentioned that your clothes don’t fit and that you want to get into better shape. I have some ideas that we might consider trying together. Are you open to talking about them for a few minutes?”

Once you (hopefully!) get their agreement, here are some additional tips to help you both:

Hunger and Fullness Scale– See if your child is willing to experiment with the following hunger and fullness scale. Suggest using it together or as a family so the focus is not all on them. Avoid becoming “the food police.” Simply teach them the scale and practice it yourself as a good role model. You can ask them (outside of mealtime) if and how they would like you to support them with it.

Explain that this scale is similar to a gas gauge:


Tell them that the goal is to eat when they are about a 3 on the scale. This is where they are not yet “starving” but do feel some physical signs of hunger. Then, encourage them to eat until they are about a 7 on the scale (or 7ish, since we don’t have to be perfect!) This is what I call “satisfied” or “politely full.”

Diet Busting Questions– These questions are adapted from my online course,Defeating Overeating.

Teach your child to ask themselves the following three questions when they are approaching a food choice:

1. What does the dieter in me think I SHOULD eat?

2. What does the overeater in me WANT to eat?

3. What does my “healthy voice” or my “body wisdom” say?

Since they are probably not used to listening to their healthy voice or their body wisdom, this one might be a little tough. Suggest they ask themselves, “How would I feed someone who does not diet or overeat?

Culture-Busting Checklist– Our culture has many rules about food that steer us away from what our bodies really like, want and need. This checklist can help your child get better at tuning into their body. When they are getting ready to eat, they might ask themselves the following: Is this nutritious, delicious and moderate?

Nutritious– Our bodies need protein, carbohydrates and fats for different and important bodily functions.

Delicious– We need to eat things we really like and love so our bodies will feel satisfied.

Moderate– Cup both hands together to make a bowl out of your palms. Explain that this bowl is approximately the size of their stomach. So their meal, once digested, will fill that bowl, making a moderately-sized meal. So, prior to ingesting, most meals will overflow your cupped hands. Explain that denser foods like pasta and dessert will fill their stomach faster than water-based foods like salad and fruit, like the difference between filling a jar with rocks vs. sand.

Flash Forward– When people are in compulsive eating mode, they usually don’t think about how they are going to feel later. This, of course, is especially true for kids. When they want the food, they want it NOW… You can teach them to “Flash Forward.” This is when they take time to think of how they are going to feel later if they eat this food now. Be supportive, not shaming, in doing this with them. For example, “Are you open to thinking this through with me for a minute? Let’s Flash Forward and think about how your tummy might feel after eating this.”

Explain to them that when we overeat, there’s usually a short-term feeling of good followed by a long-term feeling of bad.

When we flash forward and decide to refrain from overeating, tolerate difficult emotions, challenge our unkind thoughts and ride out cravings, there are more short-term hard feelings, but long-term, we end up feeling so much better in our body. We also train our system to understand that we do not have to succumb to every whim. This builds up our capacity to tolerate feelings and to see that all cravings pass!

Food For Thought– Discuss the idea of slowing down while eating. Explain how pausing in between bites, even if it’s for a second, will help slow the mealtime down, which will help the body to register fullness. (It will also help socially to have better table manners!) Again, it’s important not to turn this into a policing, shaming topic at mealtimes; simply see if your child wants to make an agreement to try this together. Some kids like to come up with a hand signal or word as a reminder to them and their parents to practice this at mealtimes. You can even take turns initiating the pauses.

Talk about the importance of sitting down while eating to encourage more mindfulness and help the body better register what it is taking in. Also remember to model this by doing it yourself!

See if your child is open to making a list of the foods that they find most difficult to eat moderately. Discuss with them how you could best support them in handling these foods, i.e. not buying them, only buying them in small quantities, only eating them when out, or temporarily keeping them out of the house. (Depending on the age and willingness of the child, some parents remove their child’s binge foods from the home without discussion but if a non-shaming talk is possible, all the better.)

Food and Feelings– Encourage your child to let you know when they feel the urge to overeat so the two of you can talk about what they might be feeling and needing at that time. Then figure out what might be best to do in its place such as: going for a walk, watching a movie, playing a game or doing some other activity together. One activity can even be to make a “bored box” where you can collect ideas of things to do when they are bored.

See if your child would be willing to tell you (or signal you privately) when they feel satisfied or politely full during a meal, and at that point the two of you can leave the table and do something else.

Your Job– Role model healthy eating with a balanced, varied, non-diet, approach. Be conscious of eating when you are hungry and stopping when you are “politely full.” Eat sitting down most of the time. Do not bad-mouth your own body or anyone else’s. Do not be perfectionistic about any of these suggestions. Praise yourself for reading this and being the devoted parent that you are!

View on The Huffington Post

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Helping Your Teen With Eating and Body Image

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

As an eating disorders counselor and author, I have spent decades working with clients of all ages who are struggling with their food and weight. My experience comes not only from my schooling and my counseling practice, but from the trenches. I too, spent the majority of my life hating my body, dieting and overeating. Like many adolescent girls, I started my body battle at about 12 years old. Unfortunately for many women, body image struggles seem almost like a rite of passage. It is way more radical (and very rare) to like one’s body in our image-obsessed culture. So, as a teen, I fit right in with most of the females around me, and my dieting and overeating went mostly unnoticed.

Like most people, the dieting I did led to overeating and the overeating led straight back to dieting and the rest, shall I say, is history. Although I certainly managed to have a life — school, summer camp, jobs, relationships, etc. — it was all colored and clouded by my constant self-hate, self-obsession and loss of control with food. I was either in diet/weight loss mode or I was in rebellion/weight gain mode. Needless to say, I was not very present or at peace.

Fortunately, I eventually found help and am extremely passionate about teaching others how to avoid or climb out of the pit I once lived in.

Most young girls struggle with their growing bodies. Many young girls struggle with food and weight issues and too many young girls develop full-blown eating disorders. There are things you can do to help your child, though, with whatever level of challenge she may be facing with her body. Here are some tips for you:

Teach your daughter that weight fluctuations are a natural part of adolescence. A young girl’s body begins to change at this age and rather than trusting the changes and eating naturally, she can take the diet ball and start running. Or, the flip side of the pattern, perhaps she feels horrible about her changing body and starts overeating for comfort. Early adolescence is a great time to start talking about normal body changes and how the best way to navigate it is not to panic, diet or binge.

Teach and practice listening to your natural hunger and fullness. I give clients a hunger and fullness scale that looks much like a gas gauge, where 0 is starving, 10 is stuffed and 5 is neutral. I encourage them to try to eat when they are about a 3 and stop when they are about a 7, which is satisfied, or politely full. This way they are never getting overly hungry or overly full. It’s great if families can practice this together.

Try to let go of labeling foods as, “good or bad.” Teach kids that all foods are fine in moderation. They may not be nutritionally equal, but when we really listen to our bodies, we usually end up eating a variety of foods and food groups and our body’s wisdom leads the way.

Practice listening to what your body truly wants, rather than basing your decisions on the diet culture’s rules. Diet rules, even if you just think them and don’t follow them, set us up to rebel by overeating. If you find that you are obsessed with your food or weight, do get help. It is hard to teach our kids what we have not yet learned for ourselves.

In the same way that it is important to teach your child moderate eating, it’s important to teach and role model moderate movement. Many people in our culture are either obsessed with working out or resistant to moving at all. It is important to find a balance between exercise and rest. If your child is resistant to movement, try finding some fun activities to do together that have nothing to do with weight loss. If your child is already linking up exercise with self-worth, have some talks about other ways people feel good about themselves and how sometimes doing nothing is doing something!

Teach your daughter to foster a sense of self-love and kindness for herself.This takes practice as our culture much more readily supports self-criticism and self-hate. I often use what I call, “Dog Talk” with my clients. If they have a dog (or a beloved pet) I ask them to notice how they talk to their pet. See if they can foster that same sense of sweetness and love for themselves. Even half as much will be a good start for many!

Create a “Bored Box” or a list of things that your daughter can do (some with you and some without), that are non food-related and non screen-related when she is bored. Examples could be playing a board game, crafting, playing an instrument, reading a book, doing something in nature, working on a puzzle or working on an outdoor project. I often suggest that parents take their kids to a craft store and just browse until their child finds something that looks interesting and fun to them.

Initiate conversations about emotions and the important role they play in our lives.Teach your kids that if they are wanting food and are not physically hungry, they may be emotionally hungry. They may need to share or write about anger, sadness or fear and receive some compassion, comfort and genuine listening. Teach them that all feelings are welcome and need to be expressed, not necessarily fixed or advised.

Have ongoing conversations about the reality of modeling and photo editing and how most models, actresses and singers do not look like the images that we see. Along these lines, talk to your kids about how often we make up stories about people having happiness or love because of the way that they look and how everyone has problems and struggles and sweet moments, no matter their body shape. See if they can give you examples of people they love of various weights and sizes or people they think have a perfect life but know well enough to know it’s not true.

Try to avoid “lookism,” where you make comments about other people’s or your own looks. It sets up a fear in kids that they better look a certain way or they might get gossiped about too.

If you suspect that your daughter is struggling with body image, get professional help to rule out an eating disorder before it becomes one. It is much easier to prevent one than to treat one.

View on The Huffington Post

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