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Helping Your Teen With Eating and Body Image

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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.

Andrea Wachter is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. In addition to her specialty in eating disorders, she also helps people who are struggling with substance abuse, depression, grief, anxiety and relationship conflicts. Andrea is in private practice in Northern California where she works with adults, adolescents, families and groups. She is co-founder of InnerSolutions Counseling Services and co-author of The Don't Diet, Live-It Workbook. Andrea is an inspirational counselor and author who brings expertise, humor and personal recovery to her clients and readers. For more information on her book or her online course, Defeating Overeating, go to: www.innersolutions.net