This week’s question is from Meg,
“I am needing advice for how to handle nutrition and eating with my 13-year-old daughter. She’s got anxiety and attention issues, and we’ve known for a long time that food impacts her symptoms. When she was younger, it was easier to control what she ate. Now that she’s older, it’s become more of a power struggle. She’s eating and drinking all kinds of things that are causing problems for her, and I worry about her weight as well. We just seem to be arguing about it all the time at home, and I’m not sure how to get her to listen. Any advice?”
In this episode, I will address how parents can help kids make healthier food choices. It all starts with how you are communicating with your child or teen. If the trust and good communication aspects aren’t there, it’s likely nothing will change. When you listen to one another and build trust, they usually respond by being more open to change. Modeling what you hope to see in your kids and teens is very effective. Kids notice what we do. And finally, in this episode, I will provide specific strategies on how to raise healthy eaters at any age.
You can submit a question by emailing us at email@example.com with the subject line “Podcast Question.”
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The Controllable Aspects of Kids’ Diets
- Focus on what we can control as caregivers such as the food we purchase and bring home
- Try to stay factual, neutral, and not let our emotions or future-oriented thinking, fears, anxieties take over
- Kids, even in their teen years, can struggle with regulating their emotions, especially for intense/or sensitive topics such as food
- When caregivers are neutral rather than in an agitated state, the information is more likely to get in, even if the child doesn’t acknowledge it in the moment
Modeling Healthy Food Habits is the Most Impactful
- Be aware of what your child is hearing and internalizing from adults, peers, and on social media/TV about food, eating, fitting in, body image, etc.
- Be mindful of how you act and speak about your own body, weight, food choices, etc.
- Focus on what you can control by modeling
- Not having a conversation with them about it when we’re doing this
- Not trying to force them to eat what we’re eating -We’re simply being a model of how to make those decisions and how we’re thinking about those things (ex. when I eat X, I notice I feel Y)
- Staying away from black and white thinking around “good vs bad” foods
- It can create anxiety, stress, and power struggles
Weight Concerns and Kids
- It is critical that we avoid talking about food and eating as related to weight for any child, especially teens
- This can set them up for dysfunctional thoughts and feelings around food and around their bodies (ex. diet culture and restriction)
- Instead, focus on food as providing information, fuel, and building blocks for our brains and bodies, and the physical and mental health components/effects
Are you Really Listening to Your Kids?
- Important to acknowledge and empathize with how they feel, even when we don’t agree with them
- ex. “Yeah, I get it, it feels frustrating. You know what? I remember feeling frustrated when I was your age, too. It’s okay to feel that way, I get it.”
- When an opportunity arises that they initiate, spotlight (in a productive way) the food-body connection involving any symptom struggles they might be experiencing (ex. they are complaining about acne but they have been eating a lot of sugar and fast food)
- Use that as an opportunity to listen, hear their frustrations, and what they’re experiencing, and also help them make some connections with things, both in their eating and their lifestyle
- Casually make the observations and open up those conversations by raising possibilities
- Not doing the thing that’s going to shut it down right away, which is, “Well, of course, you’re breaking out because XYZ”
- Instead, ask them what they think might be going on
What We Can Control with Their Food
- Parents need to focus on what is being brought into the home, groceries, availability/timing, where you choose to eat out, etc., and not micromanaging what goes on outside the home (exceptions for children with dietary requirements or special needs).
- Do not become the “food police” as they can make it much more likely that they are going to sneak food, not be open, not tell you what’s going on, or develop anxiety and distrust around these things
- This can lead to massive power struggles and breakdowns in our relationship with our kids
- Remember parent roles are to provide the food and when the child’s role is to decide if they will eat and how much
Development and Appetite Shifts
- Infancy and adolescence are significant periods of growth and require more food
- Suggest that all families have foods readily available that kids can access at any time if they’re hungry such as fruits and vegetables and nuts.
Cultivate Open Communication with Kids
- Be a safe place for them to bring questions, observations, concerns
- Keep putting things out there and let them know that you always want to answer any questions that they have, hear how they’re feeling about things related to food, meals, etc.
- Remember being open to hearing and discussing doesn’t mean you necessarily agree
- It’s about acknowledgment
- They really appreciate feeling respected in that way and feeling acknowledged
Better Brain and Behavior Diet Workshop for More Support
- I cover food, nutrition, eating approaches, tools, and strategies to implement as the parent, but also for the entire family
- There is an emphasis on eating to best support our kid’s brains, which then helps to support their behavior, learning, mood, anxiety
- Feedback from current parents that having their older kids watch some of the videos is extremely helpful for them to hear it from somebody who is not their parent
- Visit drnicoleworkshops.com
Episode Intro … 00:00:30
Listener’s Question … 00:01:15
Controllable Aspects of Kids’ Diets … 00:02:00
Modeling Healthy Habits … 00:04:35
Weight Concerns and Kids … 00:08:36
Are you Listening to Your Kids? … 00:11:28
What We Can Control … 00:14:28
Development and Appetite Shifts… 00:17:12
Cultivate Open Communication w/ Kids … 19:15
Episode Wrap Up … 22:15
Dr. Nicole Beurkens
Hi everyone, welcome to the show. I’m Dr. Nicole, and today I’m answering a question from one of you. We’re going to be talking about how to help kids make healthier food choices, especially in the teen years. This is something I know many of you deal with, especially as your kids get older, even if they’re not to the teen years yet, but when they get to those years, they have more opinions, more freedom, more options, and it can get challenging. I know this very well as a parent myself, as well as having worked with so many families and teens and young adults in my clinic over the years. So, I’m going to share some key ideas around this issue, as well as some specific strategies that you can apply to kids of all ages.
So let’s dive in with today’s specific question, which comes from Meg, and she writes, “I am needing advice for how to handle nutrition and eating with my 13-year-old daughter. She’s got anxiety and attention issues, and we’ve known for a long time that food impacts her symptoms. When she was younger, it was easier to control what she ate. Now that she’s older, it’s become more of a power struggle. She’s eating and drinking all kinds of things that are causing problems for her, and I worry about her weight as well. We just seem to be arguing about it all the time at home, and I’m not sure how to get her to listen. Any advice?”
Well, Meg, I think that many parents listening can relate to this, I know that I can relate. So let’s explore some of the things that are really going on here and some strategies that may be helpful. The first big picture thing that I want us all to think about, and I completely get that this is easier said than done, is that we need to focus on what we can control, and not try to let intense emotions take over in our interactions with our kids around food, especially for our teenagers.
They are at a developmental stage where they are even more sensitive to our emotions to things that might come up between us, to us trying to control or micromanage them, and so it’s even more important at this age, but really for all ages for us to try to stay factual and neutral about things and not let our emotions, and maybe our future-oriented thinking and fears and anxieties take over and run the show. Now again, I get that that’s easier said than done, but it is something that we can control on our side, and it’s important because often at this age, and for kids in general, they don’t regulate their emotions that great.
As they go through the teen years, they get better with that. But especially during tense moments, or especially with a topic as sensitive as eating our food, they’re likely to have some pretty intense emotions, and they’re likely to express those. We can’t control that, but we can control our emotions and our responses to our kids. So that’s where we really want to stay focused, is staying in our lane with the boundaries that we set with expressing our thoughts and feelings on something in a very neutral kind of way, the information is more likely to get in, even if the child doesn’t acknowledge it in the moment than if we are approaching it clearly in an agitated, frustrated, anxious kind of state, we’re not likely to get our point across very well or have our child really process that or do anything with it.
So that I think is key to this entire discussion, is us being aware of our own thoughts and feelings around this, the fears that we have about our child’s health, about their functioning, about what’s going to happen in the future. Being aware of that and figuring out how we need to regulate and manage that on our side so that we’re not letting those fears and those frustrations seep into all of our interactions around food with our child.
Second thing to be thinking about here is the modeling piece.
What is she seeing and hearing and internalizing from adults in her environment, around food and eating? And not even just the adults, but even her peers and people on social media and on TV and all of these places where kids are getting lots of messaging, particularly during the preteen and teen years, around food, around fitting in, around body image, around all of these things. So again, we want to focus on what we can control with this. And what we can control is what we are modeling, and what our kids are seeing and hearing and experiencing with us, as it pertains to food and health. So we want to be careful about how we are talking about ourselves, how we’re talking about our weight, our bodies, how we’re talking about food and the things that we’re choosing to eat.
Trying to stay away from black and white comments like, “Oh, that’s a bad food”, or “That’s a good food”. Food is just food, it’s not good or bad, and when we set it up in black and white terms like that, we can create anxiety and stress and even some power struggle. So talking more from the realm of what foods do for us, “Oh, when I eat these kinds of things, I feel a lot better,” or, “Oh, wow, I noticed I had leftover pizza for lunch two days in a row, and I was just kind of foggy, and tired, and not at my best at work in the afternoon.” Talking out loud about our own experiences, and what we are noticing around the things that we’re eating, and how we’re feeling, that’s a great way to model, and talking about the food choices that we’re making, even like, “Oh, you know what? Let me think about this. Hmm, I don’t think I had three servings of produce today, but I’m gonna make sure that I really load up on that at dinner,” or “I’m gonna have this snack of carrots and hummus, because I feel like I just haven’t had enough healthy fats and vegetables today.” We’re not having a conversation with them about it when we’re doing this. We’re not trying to force them to eat what we’re eating. We’re simply being a model of how to make those decisions and how we’re thinking about those things, and so just putting those things out into the environment where our kids can see and hear them is important. And obviously being intentional and aware about what they’re seeing us do, because this is huge, especially in the teen years.
Any chance that they get to sort of catch us in not walking the talk, that’s a big deal for teens, and they’re gonna be right on that. So if we’re telling our child, “You need to drink more water”, and “I want you to be eating more protein and fruits and vegetables during the day,” but they see us shoving a muffin in a bag to take to work for breakfast, or they see us going to the drive-thru and grabbing a diet soda on the way to sports practice, or whatever it might be, those are really powerful moments that are actually having a much bigger impact on how your child thinks about food and eating and making those decisions than anything you might tell them about that. And I’m not suggesting that we have to be “perfect” with everything. We don’t. But we do need to recognize that what they see us doing is really important, and especially at these ages, what they see and what they experienced with us is going to be far more powerful in terms of helping to shape their decision making as opposed to what we tell them to do. So those are some things to keep in mind from the modeling perspective.
I also want to specifically touch on — because this mom and her question raised sort of a fear or anxiety she’s having about the way that her daughter’s eating and her weight, and I want to specifically focus on this, that’s kind of the topic for even a whole other separate podcast conversation, but it’s really important to know that we want to avoid talking about food and eating as related to weight for teens, especially, but for any child of any age.
What happens there when we start talking about making food choices, or eating or not eating things because of not wanting to gain weight, or not wanting to see them gain weight, or those kinds of things, what we do is potentially set them up for a lot of dysfunctional thoughts and feelings around food and around their bodies. We can set them up for a tendency to be more engaged in what we might call diet culture and making them more predisposed to going on diets in order to lose weight, or thinking about food, or restricting food as a tool to manage weight, none of which we want to do. It’s been clearly shown in the research that that is ineffective and really problematic, particularly for kids and young adults for a variety of reasons, and we also have a lot of data now to show that even in adulthood, people who go on diets specifically for weight loss, they tend to be short-lived. Even if they lose weight, they don’t keep it off, and it sets people up for what we call this life history of yo-yo dieting, which is really unhelpful in a lot of ways, and for a lot of reasons.
So we want to not talk about food from the standpoint of “Don’t eat that because you’ll gain weight” or “I’ve noticed your clothes aren’t fitting you as well anymore, you really need to cut back on X, Y, or Z.”, those are not things that we want to be spotlighting or talking about. We even want to be checking with ourselves when we notice that dialogue within ourselves about our own eating and our weight. Instead, what we want to do is focus on food as providing information and fuel and building blocks for our brains and our bodies, and we want to focus on the physical and mental health components. What are the foods that give our bodies more information and more building blocks to do all the things we need and want it to do during the day, to have energy to be able to focus, to just feel good, to not feel so tired all the time, to be able to have a positive mood. Those are the kinds of things we want to focus on from a health perspective, not from a weight perspective.
Another thing that I think is really important for kids at this age, any age, but particularly for teens, is that we are really listening to them. That we are acknowledging and empathizing with how they feel, even when we don’t agree. And this is really key, and this will cut down on a lot of power struggles with kids in this age group, whether it’s around food, or anything else, that we want to hear them, and really let them know that we have heard them. So when they’re expressing frustration about something like, “Ah, there’s nothing good to eat in this house!”, or “Oh, you won’t buy the things that my friend’s mom will buy”, or “You’re always making meals, and wanting us to have enough protein, and that’s frustrating” or, “I’m mad about that,” or “I don’t like that”, or whatever.
We may not agree, and that’s okay, but we can acknowledge and empathize and say, “Yeah, I get it, it feels frustrating. You know what? I remember feeling frustrated when I was your age, too. It’s okay to feel that way, I get it.” And again, that acknowledging, that empathizing goes a long way, and letting them know that they’re heard. And then also, I think the other piece of this is spotlighting the connections when opportunities come up, between the symptom struggles, or the challenges that the child is dealing with, and things within their eating or lifestyle. So I will watch for opportunities, both with my own kids, as well as with kids at the clinic, when they are raising frustrations around “I’m struggling to focus well,” or “I haven’t been sleeping well,” or, “My skin is breaking out,” or “I just have been so irritable, or just kind of down lately,” and really leaning into that, and using that as an opportunity to listen and hear more of their frustrations and what they’re experiencing, and also help them maybe to make some connections with things, both in their eating and their lifestyle, like, “Oh, yeah, you’re feeling more tired. I hate it when that happens. That happens to me sometimes, too.
You know, I wonder what you think about the time that you’ve been getting to bed? I know you were out at a friend’s and then we had a later night. Do you think that might have anything to do with it?”, and just sort of casually making those observations and opening up those conversations by raising possibilities, not doing the thing that’s going to shut it down right away, which is, “Well, of course you’re tired because you haven’t been getting to bed on time.” Or, “Of course you feel tired and irritable because you’ve been eating way too many Doritos and Mountain Dews”, or whatever it might be. That’s not going to allow for helpful conversation and growth, but instead just notice things to wonder out loud about, things to ask them what they think might be going on, and at this age, it’s really important to engage them in those conversations.
Another critical piece here, along the lines of controlling what you can control is to focus on what is available and being served food and beverage wise at home and not micromanaging what goes on outside the home.
Now of course, there are always exceptions, particularly if you have a child with a life-threatening food allergy or a very severe food sensitivity or something like that, obviously some more micromanaging outside the home may be necessary, depending on your child’s ability to make decisions around that. But for the vast majority of kids, we want to focus as parents on what we’re bringing into the home and making available food-wise, and let the rest be what it’s going to be. And the reason for that is when we start micromanaging or trying to micromanage everything that goes on with our kids’ food access and food intake 24 hours a day, we create massive power struggles, breakdowns in our relationship with our kids, and it just becomes really, really difficult. So instead you focus on the groceries that you’re buying, you focus on what meals you’re making, you focus on how many meals a week you cook at home versus eating out, and where you choose to eat out. You control what you’re sending or making available for the kids to bring to school, and for snacks, and those things.
And that’s what you want to focus on. Again, you can spotlight observations and connections based on what you are aware of is going on outside the home, but we don’t want to become the food police because that is going to set you and your child up for just a lot of problems around this and make it much more likely that they are going to sneak food, that they’re not going to be open and tell you what’s going on, that they’re going to develop a lot of anxiety and distrust around these things, and that’s not what we want.
Also important to remember the roles around food, in the realm of what we can control. What is a parent’s role around feeding a child? As parents, we’re in charge of what’s available, and when. That’s our job. What food is available? What have we made for dinner? What groceries have we bought? What’s available? And when it is available and served? Our kids, their job is to decide whether they’re going to eat and how much. When we can keep to those roles and stay in our lane, it really helps to minimize high intensity negative emotional interactions and power struggles around that, so that’s important to keep in mind.
I do also want to touch on especially for teens, the developmental stage and how it impacts food intake. There are two major rapid, profound periods of growth and change in the human life cycle. The first is during infancy and the second is during adolescence. This is a really, really significant period of growth and change, physically as well as in the brain and developmentally. And where this plays a role with food intake is recognizing that there’s a lot more food that’s needed to fuel that growth. So if you’re noticing with your preteen or your teen that they’re suddenly wanting a lot more food, eating a lot more, whining about wanting more food, or you’re just noticing, “Oh, wow, there’s a lot more food being consumed”, maybe they’re eating more outside the home, to understand that in the developmental context, that they probably are hungry, or they probably are going through a growth spurt.
They may be needing more food, and to talk with them about what you can make available and maybe having things available more often. If you’ve had a food structure in your home where maybe things aren’t available as often, to make sure that they have things that they can access all the time. I like the idea for all families of having an always-available set of snacks and foods.
Those are things that kids can access at any time if they’re hungry, and usually I like for those things to be fruits and vegetables, nuts, things like that, that if they’re truly hungry, those are good options for them, and that way they always know that something’s there for them. But I think to understand, particularly in the teen years, that, yeah, your daughter or your son may be eating a lot more, or craving a lot more simply because they’re in a rapid period of growth, and so to understand the role that that plays.
And then finally, I think it’s really important, especially with kids in this older age group to try to cultivate a sense of openness in your relationship with them around lots of things, but food and eating and how they feel about their bodies and all of that stuff in particular. To be a safe place for them to bring questions, observations, concerns, and to open up conversations about that stuff, even if they don’t seem like they want to talk about it, or even if they shut it down right away or roll their eyes or whatever, to just keep putting things out there and let them know that you always want to answer any questions that they have, you want to hear how they’re feeling about things related to food, meals, if they have ideas, opinions, whatever.
Being open to hearing about those things, and discussing them doesn’t mean you’re going to necessarily agree and it doesn’t mean you’re going to do everything that they’re asking you to do or buy everything they’re wanting you to buy, but it means that you’re sending the message to them that you recognize that they’re getting older, they have ideas about things and that you want to collaborate around those things more, and they really appreciate feeling respected in that way and feeling acknowledged for the fact that they are getting to an age where they can contribute more and have more responsibilities and ideas and things like that.
So those are the big things that I would have Meg and all the rest of you think about, related to this topic of food and teens, as well as so much about applying to kids of any age. I also want to spotlight that the new Better Brain and Behavior Diet Workshop that I put together and released recently can be really helpful around all these topics as well. You’ll be able to learn more about the specifics of foods, nutrients, to give you the knowledge that you need, but also, a lot of parents are saying that they’re having their older kids watch some of the videos and take advantage of some of the information too. It can be helpful for them to hear it from somebody who is not their parent, right?
The workshop also covers eating approaches, very specific tools and strategies and things for you to implement and be thinking about as the parent, but also for your entire family to be thinking about and implementing, and it’s all geared around eating in a way that best supports our kids brains, which then helps to support their behavior, their learning, their mood, their anxiety, all of that. So regardless of the diagnosis or age of your kids, the concepts and the tools in that Better Brain and Behavior Diet Workshop are applicable to the entire family, and you’ll get a lot of tips to be able to implement that stuff with less struggle, less stress. So I encourage you to check that out. That workshop can be found at drnicoleworkshops.com, and you can check out the other things there too, but that comes to mind is a particular resource around this topic that many of you might find helpful.
So I hope that the information on today’s episode is beneficial to Meg and all of you trying to help kids make better food choices and have less power struggles. Remember, if you have a question you’d like to hear answered on a future show, email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you, as always, for listening, and I’ll catch you back here next time.