How to talk to your teenager about food

An increasingly strong media presence in our teenagers lives can mean they are placed under an immense pressure surrounding body image and food. Susie Orbach advises us on how to have a healthy and open dialogue with our children.

How to talk to your teenager about food

Susie Orbach is one of Britain's leading psychotherapists, she is also a psychoanalyst, writer, social critic and author of Fat is a Feminist Issue among other books. We asked her to give us some advice on talking to teenagers about their body and food... 

What can we say to our teenage sons and daughters? Everywhere there is talk of obesity, schemes to avoid bad foods, to bulk up, to exercise more, to measure calories in and calories out and to eat less.

The pressure affects parents, not just their children. So what’s a parent to do? How can a mum or dad steer their children through the mess of contradictory information that undermines the basics of hunger and satisfaction, turning food avoidances into a moral crusade?

With the prevalence of disordered eating hitting younger children, a son or daughter's bid for independence can often find expression in denying the parent’s desire for them to eat in a straightforward manner. Lots of girls seem to save their eating up for the weekend, skimping on school lunch and supper and scaring their parents; or they insist on salads and end up bingeing on carbs because their bodies are growing and actually require more food. 

"What teens require from parents is the hardest thing of all...a parental example around food that isn’t fraught." 

Boys can demand huge helpings of protein which to a modern day parent seems unbalanced. It’s easy for a parent to lose sight of the fact that kids require fast energy, that they sometimes need more food than adults and that what they require from parents is the hardest thing of all - sane advice that isn’t shoved down their throats. But most of all, a parental example around food that isn’t fraught.  

The last might be the hardest, particularly if a parent has had eating difficulties of their own, but it's a good opportunity to try to get a grip on one’s own eating and to limit discussions about good and bad foods round the table. The wisest approach is a parent's relaxed and relished attitude towards food. Avoiding talk of weight and instead gently focusing on showing that hunger comes in different sizes, and that real food can satisfy our hunger and allows us to stop when satisfied are all crucial. Our taste buds can be tricked by the food industry's practices which ratchet up the bliss point so that we just want to keep going.

It’s easiest if instead of getting into a fight, parents inform themselves of these practices that make non-food foods so very enticing. It’s not to moralise about never eating them but to point out that while they stimulate and satisfy mouth hunger, they create a craving for more. They need to be backed up by something more wholesome that doesn’t have taste buds hyped up by combinations of intense sugars, salts and fats. 

A shortcut to these kinds of lessons is to involve children in prepping one meal a week with mum or dad on hand. They learn the skill of transforming good ingredients into meals which are nourishing rather than frightening or magical; and cooking together tends to reduce that ubiquitous feature of adolescence: conflict at the table over food. It’s important not to fuse the two together. There are enough other arenas for the power plays of teenage years.

"Listening rather than telling is crucial and reassuring.  More is always less with teenagers. The less we say the more able they are to listen."

However, what if you're worried about your child’s eating or not eating? Picky eating is one thing. Avoiding food, or bingeing and vomiting are a different issue and best addressed early on. Listening to what your child is saying about her or his eating is the place to start. Challenging the beliefs they bring to why they are overeating or avoiding food are best handled with a light touch. Listening rather than telling is crucial and reassuring.  More is always less with teenagers. The less we say the more able they are able to listen. The better we hear, the easier troubling food behaviours can dissolve. But if you suspect a determined avoidance of food call your GP or B-eat. Early intervention helps. It can stop a problem becoming entrenched and that is crucial for the child concerned and the whole family.

Do you stuggle to talk to your teen about food? Have dinner times become a source of conflict in your house? Or do you have advice for other parents? We'd love to hear your views.

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