The New Year has just begun. What percentage of the country is now on a New Year's inspired diet? I'll bet it's more than you think. But what happens if that dieter is the mother of a kid who is struggling with his or her own weight?
"Oh no! My mother's on another diet!!" Amy, a 14-year-old patient, is enraged that her mother is on another new diet. Amy has had a history of binging since the first grade. She hates herself when she goes for the second (or third) dessert, even when she now is aware that sometimes she is eating when she isn't the slightest bit hungry. At times she is able to reflect on what is going on. Sometimes, she just gives up. After all, she is only 14.
Amy has been on every diet possible and so has her mother, Jill. Amy feels her mother's dieting is definitely not helping the situation. Her mother has struggled with her weight for a lifetime, but she has, at various times, been able to use food plans successfully to lose weight. Mom does not, in any measurable way, have an eating disorder although she, like many middle-aged women, is certainly overly concerned with her weight, food and body image.
So here is the question -- as a New Year's resolution, Jill is committed to eating well and looking her best. She's begun a food plan that has worked for her in the past. She's a bit preoccupied with it all. What is she doing wrong?
What if I were to say nothing?
One of the hardest things that any kid needs to learn is that it's pretty hard to change your parents. Parents need to know, in reverse, that their behaviors (including dieting), in and of themselves, don't cause eating disorders in children.
But there are many things moms and dads can do to make sure that they are helping their kids to move in a direction of health and well being.
1. Parents are people. Parents will eat healthfully -- and not so healthfully. That's hard to control. But notice how much time and attention food and appearance get in your household. If there is a steady focus on food and weight, you can be sure the kids will get the message to focus on their looks. Dieting itself doesn't cause an eating disorder. An ongoing focus on weight and looks can. You might want to actually count how many times food and weight get discussed each day. Notice dinner conversations. How much does food talk get center stage? Sometimes I tell families to make sure that each person brings something to the family to talk about each day -- something that doesn't have to do with food or looks.
2. Talk to your kids about your eating. Let them have questions. Answer as honestly as you can (yes, you are allowed to worry about your health and your weight. You are human.) But find out what it's like for them.
3. Remind your child or teen -- and yourself -- that an important part of any kid's life is trying to figure out whom he or she is -- separate from the parents. Try to talk about what works for each person in the family around eating -- it's bound to be different for each person. It might be interesting to talk about what works well for each person, and what doesn't. That will differ too.
4. Make sure to support your child's efforts with his or her own struggles. In this case, mom should make sure she has food around the house that Amy needs, or mom may need to make sure she eats with the family instead of potentially skipping meals.
Eating is like a fingerprint. No two people eat exactly the same and there's not one right way to do it. How to locate our different appetites, needs and desires is the endless challenge of life. How to know what we need in the face of someone else's differing needs is the even harder challenge. Perhaps there is no better way to kick off the New Year than looking at how these questions get played out with food, weight and body image. This might be an even harder -- but more satisfying -- challenge than the next New Year's resolution diet.