March 2009

“Mom, Do I look Fat?”

Anyone out there deal with this one yet? ( I am writing today for those with girls in that 8 – 13, 14 year old range.)

If you have trained yourself to stop saying:  “Do I look fat in this?” out loud, particularly in front of your daughter, hoping to communicate a positive body image, it can be a shock when you hear for the first time:  “Mom, I feel fat!”  or “Mom, I am fat!”

Preteens and Their Changing Bodies

While many people focus on issues in “teenage years,” the preteen years, when your daughter’s body is preparing for puberty, can come with its own specific challenges.  Several things to consider are: 

This is a time of increasing body consciousness.   Girls are beginning, if they haven’t already, to compare their own bodies to those of their friends.  They are navigating images of bodies in a world where the emphasis is on thin.  The media encourages this perception with an emphasis on body types that are out of the average range.  Although we want to protect our daughters and tell them not to be obsessed with America’s Top Model, we can’t stick our head in the sand and pretend that this world doesn’t exist.

The surge of hormones brings on more sensitivity.  Along with increased social and peer pressure and the wish to ‘fit in’, girls do compare their bodies and body parts.  Their worries about who is friends with who, and the shifting alliances between groups of friends, can all be funneled into focusing on their bodies.

Girls often appear chunkier, or ‘fluffier’ as their bodies prepare to menstruate.  They will put on fat in the areas where estrogen is stored; namely, the stomach, butt, thighs, and upper arms.  Nutritionists I have consulted with say that this can be a time when they get the most referrals.  Keep in mind that this is often transitional stage, until their bodies ‘settle out’.  It is vital that preteens don’t restrict their eating too much, or start a diet unless medically necessary.  This can trip off an eating disorder, or an eating pattern that creates long-term problems. 

Tips to Help You and Your Daughter Navigate the “I Am Fat” Complaint

When you have a calm moment, sit with your daughter and ask her more about her concern:  “You worry that you are fat; what makes you think that?”  Begin a conversation. Ask about their social lives and any hurt feelings.  If your child is concerned about a particular body part, remind her that every body is different. Everyone’s body has its own shape, and its own timetable for its changes.

Don’t let your preteen start to diet as a result of their worry.  If in fact they have a weight problem, or are beginning to eat compulsively on a regular basis, consult a professional.  Dieting can cause long term problems related to unhealthy eating habits.  Remind them to eat the foods they love, but to always eat when hungry and stop when full.  Try to notice if they are eating out of boredom or anxiety and ask them about it.  Distract them with talk.

If your preteen is spending too much time in the mirror, keep them moving!  Set a time limit!  Joke about it, and just keep them putting one foot in front of the other.  Be aware if your daughter is withdrawing from her friends or avoiding social situations.  Help your daughter move through her negative feelings and teach her that it is normal to not feel great about all of the parts of herself.  If these preoccupations persist and interfere with your daughter’s functioning or she is overly restricting her food, seek professional help.

Have a ‘matter of fact’ attitude.  Teach your preteen that feelings pass.  Treat her anxiety in a matter of fact way.  Show your preteen that it is okay to feel anxious, not great sometimes, and that it can pass.  Show her that you can hold onto a larger view, while empathizing that she feels badly.  Don’t avoid her feelings.

As a parent, our impulse is to always reassure, and soothe.  As our children become preteens, they need more than a Band-Aid to comfort them.  Often, our preteens need to vent their frustration and negativity.  So, just like in any other parenting issue, listen and acknowledge your daughter’s feelings while forgiving yourself for any of your own feelings that get triggered.  We all have our limits after all, and at times, you can simply respond:   “Please don’t insult my daughter.”




“Oh Good, More For Me!”

is what I say when my kids don’t want to eat what I have painstakingly made. (Violins being played, actually, I am not a very good cook!) But I hear over and over from families who love to eat well, one of the parents is a fabulous cook, and their kids will only eat 5 things, of course none of them being whatever the parents love to eat.

It can be demoralizing. Frustrating. Insane making. But is it a problem? Parents ask me: “How can we get our kids to try more foods? There must be something!” In this blog I am going to offer some tips, but they will not necessarily be directed to ‘getting your child to eat’ those foods if whatever you have tried hasn’t worked. I am going to help you figure out if in fact there is a problem here, and hope to reassure you, that this is one of the most typical ways young kids do eat.

Working with hundreds of parents in doing research for my book, I found that kids can have a particular style of eating, almost like a personality trait. These can change, but I found these 6 categories were typical in childhood:
The Beige Food Eater, The Grazer, The Trouble Transitioner, The Picky Eater, The Sugar Demander, and The Spurt Eater. This blog is dedicated to The Picky Eater. (I promise to follow with the others!)

It is useful to look at eating habits of younger children as partly developmental. If you think about it, food is the earliest thing our kids can do to control their lives. They can purse their lips, and shake their head: “No! I don’t want to eat that!” This is part of them establishing themselves separately from you. This is good, that they know what they want and don’t want, particularly that they may not be hungry or that their body is telling them not to eat that food. Some allergists believe that picky eaters are protecting themselves until they build up the immunity to the foods that they are staying away from.
Additionally, it is important to know that formerly adventurous eaters when this is most of their expanding world, can become very picky eaters, as they move on to building skills in other areas. It is way more interesting to chase that ball, than to try that new food, for example. These are the most important questions to ask yourself: Is your child thriving? Are they on THEIR growth curve? Is the doctor concerned? Most often, your child is fine, unless they have sensory integration issues which can affect oral motor development. (If you have concerns please consult with your pediatrician; I have a list of things you can look out for if you are concerned in Take the Fight Out of Food).

So ask yourself: What is the Problem? “Well, my child only eats the same five things over and over.” Are they getting a range of the food groups roughly, or are they at risk for scurvy? Usually those questions are yes, and no. But parents still pull their hair out.
Many parents worry that their kids will miss out on an enjoyable part of life. Like most aspects of parenting, “DON’T’ PREDICT THE FUTURE!. More often than not, this is a stage that is totally typical of childhood that your child is passing through. Most picky eaters grow out it by age 13 when biology kicks in, (growth spurts) and their senses fully develop. (Remember, eating involves the three senses: touch, taste and smell!)

But it can be a drag if other relatives, particularly at times, grandparents, might criticize your parenting either overtly or discreetly, implying that you are too ‘easy’ on your child. And, simply, it really gets boring when your child has a truly limited palate.
A word of reassurance: All of the pediatricians and nutritionist I consulted with in researching this, state that kids get their nutritional needs met on a one to two week basis, and are usually fine. They end up getting what they need. Even if it is one fruit, or one vegetable of that food group. Over and over and over!
But here are some tips to cope with your Picky Eater:

1) Have a “Oh good, more for me!” attitude. Model eating and enjoying theirs and your food.

2) If you have other kids, ‘leverage the siblings.” They can take the carrots from the little one’s plate which often makes that child want it more. If you have one child, perhaps you can do this.

3) You may subscribe to the offer it to them until they try it, or they need to try it once before they decide they don’t like it. You can pick what you prefer. I didn’t have the patience with my youngest, my pickiest eater and I wasn’t worried about it, so it was easy to do more of the reverse psychology method.

4) The less issue you make of it, the less anxiety you create in your child. Your child needs a calm mommy, not an anxious mommy, Besides, anxiety cuts appetite, or will create opposition. You definitely don’t want your child eating for you, to be ‘good’, or to use this for power struggles.

Continue to enjoy the beautiful food you make with your partner, wife, husband, and model your enjoyment with your kids. Continue to eat together. Take the stress out of the mealtimes, by all of you, relaxing and enjoying the food. Be dogmatic about mealtimes being about connecting and hanging out together, not necessarily about eating. Enjoy those golden moments. Now that can fill you up. Who knows? One of them might become the next Alice Waters.

“How Much is Too Much Pre-Teen Text?”

We know all about it. Even the President couldn’t part from his Blackberry. Is the term Crack-berry yet in the revised Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders?

We are addicted to our devices that keep us abreast of the news, and in touch with each other. Forget talking. Especially for teenagers. Texting, I-M’iing, and Face-Booking has replaced the old phone conversation. There are so many different ways our kids stay in touch with each other now, that it is impossible to keep up.

It is also hard at times, to disconnect. I have had to declare mealtime as a cell-free time zone. This, after catching my middle daughter surreptitiously texting under the table. She’s good, that one!

As your teens move into more independence, you may give them more freedom with texting, time on their computers; (that is, if your cell phone plan allows it!) I am focusing here however, on the pre-teen stage when they are neither kid, nor teenager; a tween some call it. If they don’t yet have their own cell phone or computer, you will likely be moving in that direction soon. With this, many parents worry not only about their kids’ exposure to the internet and social networking sites, but simply, how to manage their kids’ texting, while giving them some access to this new way of communicating with their friends.

A key part of this developmental stage is social connection. Feeling part of things, being in the loop is a vital part of feeling like you are fitting in, which is where ‘staying in the know’ becomes so important. Being connected in fact, is not just a social artifact of being female, but is biological. A fairly recent book on the female brain helps us understand why in fact, girls’ need to connect is part of their brain biology, and that not connecting triggers anxiety. (The Female Brain’ by Louann Brizendine, M.D., Broadway Books).

As girls are entering puberty hormones are kicking in and identity questions are becoming ever more important. Who am I? Where do I fit in? These are the basic questions that preoccupy many tweens, and are completely normal.

When however, do our girls and their need to be part of what is going on, or at least connected to one friend to help them feel that they are doing okay, drive excessive texting, or I-M’ing? When does connection for comfort, that need to ‘talk’, turn from reassurance, that you are okay, and connected, to an activity that creates more problems?

Currently researchers are proposing that because it is so easy for us to connect via texting, social networking, that young women, teenagers and now tweens, are spending much more time talking with their friends about any problems or issues they may be having. The concern is that this can go from being fun, sociable, and reassuring, to at times creating more anxiety. While your pre-teen may not yet be having this problem, it is good to understand the world they may be moving into, before you know it! As I see it with working with pre-teens and teens for 20 years now, the current concerns are emerging as follows::

1) Girls can ‘over-talk’ about things, which can actually create more worry, and an over preoccupation with an issue,

2) They can have trouble knowing when and how to say no to their friend, and take time for themselves and

3) They lose the ability to wait. This robs them of some of their own problem solving abilities that they would come to by themselves.

Waiting is one of the most important psychological tools we can give to our children. If they learn now to sit still and wait, they will ‘sit with’ some of their feelings. This gives them an opportunity to not only know themselves better, but to problem solve when the feeling dies down and they can think about it more rationally. (This is also a time when they might let you help them think through the situation with them out loud.) This increases their problem solving, and decision making skills; tools that are vital toward their psychological growth and well being.

But in this world of MySpace; YourSpace, how do we as parents, help our kids figure out how to take their Own space? Particulary during this stage where they are identifying more with their peer group than with us? Here are some tips to help you navigate their ever expanding world while trying to stay connected.

1) If you don’t think your child needs a cell phone yet, don’t be afraid to say no. No, you are not ruing their life! If they have one already, and rely on texting for communication, certainly set some ground rules around when they can’t text. Meal times need to be ‘no texting’ time zones. Take their phone away if it is interfering with their ability to do homework. Take it away at bedtime so that they don’t stay up the next hour, texting a friend. Create cell-free zones and times.

2) While bedtime rituals are changing from childhood, see if they will allow you to either comfort them, or problem solve through talking with you, when you are putting them to bed. I found this a time where after reading her own book, my daughter who is now a teenager, would want me around and would relax and be more open to telling me if she was struggling, if I gave her a backrub. It became something I could do to help her relax, and we ended up talking as she started to calm down.

3) Separate your own feelings from those of your child’s. We all have our own triggers for feeling left out, and being back in junior high, not part of the group, or fear of that happening. Try to let your child have their feelings without solving them yourself, and getting over involved. This is a time when they need you to be there but to allow them the space to figure out how they are going to manage their feelings. Give them the feeling that you trust how they will handle things and if they feel bad, you can handle them feeling that way. Help them to think through the situation with you by asking them more questions about how they might want to handle it, vs. giving them the answers.

4) Let your kids ‘save face’ by setting the limits on the time they can be on the computer connecting, or texting. Being the bad guy and letting them blame it on you, helps them to take space, without offending their friends. They learn to say no. You are modeling that, and they learn about setting limits. It also helps them to learn that even when they might not want to say ‘goodbye’, or it feels too soon and they need to talk more, that they will ‘reconnect’ with their friends, and social groups the next day. This helps them deal with feelings of anxiety and they learn to trust the reconnect.

Our kids’ needs for their social connections are only going to expand. As a parent, you can give them tools to help them navigate their expanding social world, with the ability to disconnect, take their own space, and remain connected to you.