I had to laugh while I watched Michelle Obama on the Today Show yesterday. She was describing a game that her family plays called "Thorns and Roses."
I laughed because when my kids were young, I instituted a game that I called "Good Thing, Bad Thing" that we played at mealtime. Basically we would go around the table and say one good thing and one bad thing that had happened to us that day.
The reason I instituted this was that as a therapist treating eating problems, I know for certain, (and this does not take a rocket scientist or a professional of course), that people use food for many reasons other than for nourishment. We eat when we are bored, anxious, sad, irritated -- you name it. Kids can easily develop a habit of using food to help themselves to feel better, almost without us knowing. It can happen that insidiously. Interestingly, with brain imaging studies, we now also understand that even restricting food, (anorexia) acts on the system in the brain to reduce anxiety.
When we talk about creating healthy eating habits in children, I am always interested in focusing on not just what we eat, but how we eat. There is thankfully, a lot of focus now put on the fact that 1 in 3 children are obese. There is no doubt that we need to look at what people are eating; at the food industry and how food is made, the additives that create the opposite of the feeling of full that helps us stop eating, but rather induces more eating. The profit margins in the food business that has driven an industry that has supersized portions to capture market share. Getting 30 % more lulls the consumer to think that they are getting a deal. Unfortunately, this supersizing of portions over the last roughly 20 years, has truly set Americans up to have major weight problems. When you get used to bigger amounts of food to be a portion size, you are basically training your stomach, eyes, senses to stop eating, or be full, at twice the amount of calories we were getting ten to twenty years ago. Not a surprise that most people in this county are overweight.
So, to get back to why I say Michelle Obama's family game is an obesity buster: She allows for the option to express the bad, not just the good. If you can talk about things that make you feel bad, you build a tool for your child to feel it, rather than eat it.
One of the most important things parents can give their kids, is the space to allow for all feelings. The positive and the negative. Most people with eating problems have difficulty what we call in the biz, processing feelings. Particularly, the negative ones.
Basically, if as a parent you demonstrate to your child that you can allow for and tolerate them feeling what they feel, you give them these tools:
1) a way to recognize a particular feeling,
2) language to verbalize and symbolize that experience
3) support, validation, understanding, soothing, and
4) a tool to learn to wait until the feeling gets less intense so that they can begin to use rational decision making abilities to figure out what to do.
The capacity to 'wait' is probably one of the most important tools you can teach your child. Validating a feeling gives them a process whereby you are helping them develop the 'muscle' to wait to act until the feeling of intensity dies down. Then you can problem solve together.
Teaching kids how to wait is a cornerstone of postponing gratification. We are now learning that this skill, which can be taught, can be a single predictor of success in life. Forget just dieting!
So yes, Michelle Obama, you are contributing in many ways to combat childhood obesity. It is starting in your own home, not only in the food you serve at the table.
Find your own way to play this game with your family, and you will be sending a strong message that helps your kids know they can talk with you. A true eating problem buster.
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