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!
Andrea Wachter, LMFT is co-founder of InnerSolutions Counseling Services and co-author of The Don't Diet, Live-It Workbook. Her private practice is in Northern California and she also offers a low-cost teleconference for anyone, worldwide, who is suffering from stress, anxiety, depression or addictions. Andrea is an inspirational counselor, author and teacher who brings her professional experience as well as personal recovery to those she works with. For more information on her book or her Stress Less Teleconference, please visit http://www.innersolutions.net/book.php#class