May 2008

The 5 foot, 100 lb. “Obese Mom”

she called herself when she walked into my office after calling to meet for a consultation about her 5 year old son.

A teeny, beautiful woman, working as a top physician in one of New York City’s best hospitals, this Mom joked with me, that she calls herself, “The Obese Mom”, after taking her son to the doctor for his annual checkup. The doctor turned to her, horrified, after weighing her son, and said: “He is obese! How did you let this happen!”

How awful for her. A physician and heart specialist yet, who works daily with people who have medical problems stemming from obesity.

As we talked more, the issues became clear. Her food legacy came out; how her Mom never cooked meals, let them eat anything they wanted, junk food, they mostly raised themselves vis a vis eating. Her own guilt about her long hours and how she didn’t want to challenge the babysitter she was so dependent on, even though this babysitter showered her son with love/food. Never said no, and had a bottle or food in his mouth at all times. How on her days off, since her son loved to eat, they would bake cookies together, and eat the cookie dough. He loved it so much.

It was time for some tough love. For both of them. Coaching her through weaning her son of sweets and a habit of eating for comfort, for any reason, was hard. Working through her guilt and her connection of food as love and nurturing had to be examined.

Hard to be a Mom. In time, this child lost weight, and this Obese Mom did other things to enjoy their time together.

Did they have a period of deprivation, screaming and yelling? Yes. Did she feel like the worst Mom in the world? Yes. But she knew it had to be done. Part of the process after taking away sweets, was a period where he got to choose when and how he got his treat per day. He felt control by knowing it was in the fridge, he could get it when he wanted, but that was it. No more than that.

She set limits. She felt hated by him. She was the bad guy. (And the Obese Mom yet!)

Now she can joke about it. Her son is happy, healthy, socializing and this “Obese Mom” doesn’t fear getting yelled at by his doctor.

Love and Hate in the Time of Parenting

I had to write this in honor of Mother’s Day coming up.

With all of the love love love, think positive self-help mantras out there; I am going to flip it for you.

To help all you parents out there learn why and how it is vital to embrace your intense feelings of hatred at times, for your kids. Don’t feel guilty. This is not to give yourself a free pass, or a rationalization, but rather to let you know why in fact it is a vital part of teaching your children how to tolerate ambivalent feelings. Part of being a human being and part of relationships.

I promise you, this is not coming only from the Mom perspective of how I feel at times when I am in the biggest fight with my kids. It comes from the training I have gotten as an analyst, when I was told by one of my best teachers: “Good enough is not only ‘good enough’, it is vital to help kids tolerate disappointment, and learn to hold onto us in their minds in the face of their own anger and hatred.

Now we are talking primitive feelings here, right? But name me an intense relationship that doesn’t involve love and hate, and I will say that is not intimate. Or deeply involved.

Learn to love your hate. I am always drawn to other irreverent moms like myself, who are willing to be upfront about their angry feelings, and the emotional intensity that can come up in parenting.

Most importantly though, we do need to model for our kids, that, in the face of their tantrums, or anger as we don’t give them what they want, that we can hold onto their love for us and we remember how great they are even when they are behaving so badly. That gives them a way to soothe themselves and hold on to soothing feelings to help them develop that tool to prevent fixing it with drugs, alcohol, food, etc.

Simple. Direct. Don’t be afraid. It passes. Teach your kid it is not the end of the world and you know they still love you, as you do them even when you or they ‘feel’ the hatred.

I know we don’t like to use that word.

But hey, we are all human. If you can feel it, you don’t have to act on it.

Happy Mother’s Day!

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Tales From the Food Couch: What Style of Eater is Your Child?

Do you have a Picky Eater or a Beige Food Eater; those usually 5-7 year olds who will only eat white food? Does your kid require 18 warnings before transitioning from one activity to the other, and then have trouble stopping something once they start? The Trouble Transitioner.

There is The Spurt Eater; those toddlers or preschoolers who go for days on what seems like air, only to play biological catch up and shovel everything in for a day. Then we have The Grazer. I haven’t grown out of this one; it is my favorite way to eat, picky smaller bits throughout the day. This is a big one for toddlers and drives parents nuts when they are trying to go to solid foods into mealtimes. Lastly, we have The Sugar Demander. The kid (or yourself!) who keeps saying: “I want a cookie, I need a cookie, I want a cookie!” Often comes up as they enter preschool and you lose more and more control over the food they are exposed to.

This is where it gets hairy, right?! This is why I love working with people on food issues. There is always an interesting combination of things going on: food is so central to our beginning understanding of where we begin and end, and how we communicate with others. So, let me say how important it is to recognize that frequently these are styles and patterns of eating that are often typical, and normal. Particularly the Picky, Spurt, and Grazer. The pediatrician who wrote the forward for my book says that The Beige Food Eater is the most typical style of eater in early childhood and that the only thing you need to worry about is iron; throw some Cream of Wheat into the mix and you are covered.

The Trouble Transitioner and Sugar Demander are the two who end up at risk for eating more than their bodies’ need and can land up compulsively eating for reasons other than what their bodies need. The Trouble Transitioner might need help stopping after a portion or two, (distract the young ones to help them learn to wait to trigger the ‘DONE’ signal) or the Sugar Demander who will eat and fight you if you don’t give them some control or make too much of an issue of it. Conversly, they really need you to pick your battles and not wimp out on them, but you need to be somewhat flexible and reasonable within the perameters you set. Not all kids self-regulate and do need more help stopping.

We are learning more and more about the biology of appetite regulation, (more to come on this from the research field) and how genetics comes into play. All of this to say, that if you can separate out an eating style that is truly not dangerous or unhealthy, (and I say truly, because you’ve got to have confidence when the doc says yes, your kid is on THEIR growth curve and is thriving even though they are a very picky eater) from how you might be getting held hostage by food issues and control issues, you will help your kid truly eat for life, by turning things back on them and helping them know their own body better.

Make some of their own decisions within the rules you set up that you as the parent have the right to do. Be reasonable. Somewhat flexible. Don’t get too picky yourself, and over worry. Figure out first: “”What is the Problem, and Whose Problem is It?”

Are we having fun yet?!

Parenting is hard. Pick your battles. Figure out when and what the food battles need to be. Don’t get held hostage by your fear that you will create an eating disorder, but don’t be overly involved. Get your kid to take some responsibility and make some decisions within the choices you determine.

And lastly, don’t get held hostage in the kitchen. Figure out what works for you and them. But most importantly, be prepared. Like every issue in parenting, it will change. The moment you master one stage or feel like you are on an equilibrium, you will need to figure out something else, as they throw you more curve balls.

Again, I ask you: Are we having fun yet? You’ve got to chuckle at yourselves and remember that we can only do so much. Good enough, thank goodness, is good enough. Balance the tension between wanting to control things and having there be no structure or routine. Your kids having all the power, or no power. Come on, you can do it. Use your gut. Your instincts, and have confidence in yourselves.

As much as they will want to fight you, remember: Kids aren’t stupid, they know they shouldn’t be the boss.