These girls, aged 12 to 15, never crossed the line into full eating disorders. In fact, they became healthy young women with normal-enough eating. Siena switched from a vegetarian diet to a gluten-free one, to one that involved lots of raw vegetables. Bella rarely ate much in front of her friends, though her weight tended to run a little higher than one might expect. Meagan dieted on and off, though never with much persistence. Caroline obsessed about being “fat” so often that her friends began to eye-roll. Kendra went through a phase of only eating “healthy” foods, fearing sweets and junk.
These stories, and a host of similar ones, have become normative in the world of girls approaching and just past puberty. Some, of course, do segue into bulimia or anorexia or binge eating disorder. But this edging toward the “thin line”, just this side of an eating disorder, has become close to inevitable in the life of teen girls. And no wonder: combine the normal anxieties, physical and social changes of this time, with our cultures confusing and unsupportive eating environment. This includes computer-altered images of ultra-thin models, an overabundance of foods with addictive qualities, media saturated with talk of diets meant to transform every body.
All parents these days face the challenge of fostering healthy food attitudes and habits. As I, and others, have written elsewhere, this usually involves a tricky balance of relaxation and firmness. Parents who regulate and restrict food choices usually don’t foster a relaxed and confident approach to food. On the other hand, guidance and role-modeling is surely called for in the midst of all this.
When it comes to this slippery-slope time for adolescent girls, however, parents can face new challenges—even when childhood eating issues have been minimal or non-existent before. So now, do you encourage or freak out if your normal weight teen wants to diet? Do you call a therapist when your daughter says she feels fat, or simply talk her through? Many good books and resources exist to help guide parents with eating disordered children. There are fewer for this very numerous group who may worry and fret and experiment, but essentially prove healthy and pretty much able to navigate through (see Resources, below).
As parents, we don’t necessarily have as much control as we’d like, but as with issues of substance use, we can communicate expectations, educate, and support. And often this does make a difference. Toward this end, I offer 5 guidelines to help the navigation:
1. Work on Your Own Eating Issues. You don’t have to be perfect weight, or without any diet worries at all, to set good examples. On the other hand, constant dieting, talk of being fat, etc., does not help. Eating as healthfully as you can, in as relaxed a manner as you can, is the goal. And where you do still struggle, you can talk honestly with your teen about where you are with it and what you’re trying to improve.
2. Be Firm About Nutritional Basics. While experimentation with different ways of eating may appeal to your adolescent, it is always important to get adequate protein and calories, no matter what. Growth continues to occur, remember, well into young adulthood. Sometimes a visit to a nutritionist or pediatrician—a non-parent professional, in other words—can help. Teens often don’t register that they have very different nutritional needs from the grown-ups that diet books target.
3. Emphasize Strengths Other Than Looks. Ultimately what really matters is who your teen is in all the ways that don’t involve looks and weight. Take interest in, encourage and compliment these other traits and achievements. If you see a few pounds creeping on, you don’t need to discuss it immediately unless asked for input.
4. Be a Family Where Talk is OK. An environment where it is taboo to discuss emotional issues can breed problems. This doesn’t mean everything has to be talked about, just that it would be safe and not bizarre to do so. This may be one of the factors—“we sit and we talk”--that makes family dinner a protective habit for teens.
5. Convey Trust. As alarming as it can be to see your child exhibit less-than-ideal eating attitudes, try to discuss it calmly. It matters that you convey confidence that your teen can understand and do better, that you trust she’s capable of that. (Of course, if this proves not to be true--you can proceed to the next step, seeking professional help.)
In the end, it’s hard for any of us, at any age, to grapple with the confusing food messages and choices in our culture. What’s important is to aim to do your best and not worry about perfection. And when it comes to kids and teens, remember that many who grow up with imperfect diets do become adults who care and make good choices after all.
*The Renfrew Center has excellent educational materials and a book list for parents.
*EatSanely.com "Kids" archive has more discussion and ideas on raising kids to eat healthily and without fear