Eating problems among children are an epidemic, with obesity rates in some states as high as 33 percent. Some schools are sending Body Mass Index (BMI) “report cards” home to parents in an attempt to address this problem. While many parents are, in fact, aware of their children’s weight status, education about nutrition and exercise are not always sufficient to address these complex issues. Spotting eating disorders early on is important to help prevent them.
The fact is that many children (like adults) use food to comfort difficult feelings. Parents may put their kids on diets (or a child may start her own) but these efforts are rarely effective and may actually backfire. Depending on a child’s personality, putting a kid on a diet may produce obesity in the rebellious child (“I’ll just binge when Mom’s not looking”) or anorexia in the compliant child (“I’ll make Mommy proud and eat PERFECT from now on!”).
Interestingly, children with anorexia and over-eaters share two common traits:
- They misread or are disconnected from their hunger-fullness signals
- They are not very good at labeling feelings. The technical term for this is “Alexythymia”—Latin for “lacking words for feelings.”
The bottom line is this: if you want to help prevent your kid from developing an eating problem, obsessing about carbs, fat grams and calories, you may be barking up the wrong tree.
The best approach in 3 steps:
- Help your child tune into her body
- Teach them to interpret its signals accurately
- Guide them to trust the wisdom in these signals and then to respond to them appropriately.
Radical concept, I know. It may even seem like a Herculean task if you’re a chronic dieter and baffled by your body’s subtle language. Do you use food for comfort, for reward, or to numb your stress? Have you embarked on a diet because your career, marriage or life felt out of control? Helping your child understand and trust her body can be tough if you have an ambivalent relationship with your own.
So really, step one, before helping your own child, is for you to start listening to the subtle language of your own body. How often do you use food – or the restriction of food – to meet non-food related needs? Keep track for a day and let me know what you discover.