How to talk to your teenager about food
Many teenagers feel under pressure when it comes to body image and food. Susie Orbach advises us on how to have a healthy and open dialogue with our children.
What can we say to our teenage children? 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, how can we steer children through the mess of contradictory information out there about diets and weight?
How to teach healthy eating habits
Disordered eating is affecting more and more children. You may recognise it as your child denying food in a bid for independence. They may save their eating up for the weekend, skimping on school lunch and supper; or 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. 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 – balanced, healthy advice.
The last might be the hardest, particularly if a parent has eating difficulties of their own, but it's a good opportunity to try to limit one's own discussions about good and bad foods, especially round the table. The wisest approach is for you to have a relaxed and relished attitude towards food. Avoid talk of weight and instead gently focusing on showing that hunger comes in different sizes, and that real food can satisfy our hunger. You could explain how our taste buds can be tricked by the food industry's practices so that we just want to keep going.
Practical tips for parents
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.
Inform yourself of what makes junk foods so enticing. The key is not to moralise about never eating them but to point out the unhealthy effect they can have on a growing body and mind. Then, you can offer something more wholesome that isn't packed with sugar, salt and fat.
A shortcut to these kinds of lessons is to involve children in prepping one meal a week. They learn the skill of transforming good ingredients into meals which are nourishing; and cooking together can even reduce that ubiquitous feature of adolescence: conflict at the table.
Disordered eating – what to look out for
What if you're worried about your child’s eating habits? Be aware that picky eating is one thing. Avoiding food, bingeing or vomiting are different and very serious issues which are best addressed early on. Listening to what your child is saying about their eating is the place to start. Discussing why they're overeating or avoiding food is best handled with a light touch. The better we hear them, the easier troubling food behaviours will be to dissolve.
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Remember, early intervention helps. It can stop a problem becoming entrenched, and that is crucial for the child concerned and the whole family. If you suspect a determined avoidance of food, call your GP or B-eat.
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Do you struggle 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.
All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.
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.