September 2009

Flipping the “Off”- Switch: Teaching Your Overeater How to Stop


Nothing like having kids to reinforce the nature part of the nurture debate when it comes to personality traits.  Forget things like hair and eye color; any parent with more than one kid knows how different and unique their personalities and temperaments are, from Day One.

I broaden this to what I call your kid’s “Food Personality”.   It is rare for there to be kids in one family who all have similar eating styles.  More often than not, I hear parents including myself, talk about having one kid who’s a fairly picky eater, stops easily, while there are many children who have trouble stopping.

I call these kids, my Trouble Transitioners.  Since I coined this term for the 6 Styles of Eaters I write about in my book, I have come to see that some kids don’t necessarily say: “More, More!” because they have trouble with transitions, but simply because they have a  well developed palate, and love the stimulation of the tastes, smells and the sensations of the food!  I think back to when my middle daughter who delights in whatever she is doing at the moment, would be eating bowls and bowls of cereal, with the biggest smile on her face; humming the whole time.  I had to teach her how to flip the ‘off’ switch by waiting and checking back in with her body 20 minutes later.

This is the opposite of the Picky Eater; kids whose palates and senses don’t develop until they are older.  (If at all, there are some adults who are still picky eaters, and not that ‘into’ food.)   Trouble Transitioners are so stimulated by the tastes and sensations (early ‘foodies’; and I say that in the best sense of the word), that they are on their third helping before they feel the signal that they are ‘Done, or Full”.  By the time they hear the signal and stop, they are usually STUFFED.  This way of eating can, over time, become habitual as the cue to feeling ‘DONE’ and STOP EATING, is triggered after larger quantities.  The obvious result can be weight issues, which create other problems.

Parents can worry about how to handle this without at best, creating bad feelings and power struggles, or at worst, an eating disorder.  (Although parents, you can let yourself off the hook, it takes more than that to create a true eating disorder; some disordered eating, perhaps, not a full blown eating disorder.)

So in the interest of giving your ‘foodies’ some tools to prevent problems from developing, here are some tips:

1)    Enjoy and show your kid that you love how much they love food and the tastes.  Celebrate this.

2)    Teach them that they are their own “BODY EXPERT”, and it is their responsibility to become the best “BODY DETECTIVE” possible.  This means listening carefully to their stomachs for the signal that they are DONE, OR FULL.  Educate them that some bodies take longer to send the signal; it can just be a whisper after one bowl of cereal, but they need to WAIT 20 minutes to hear it well.

3)    While they are waiting, let them do an activity with you like clearing the table, doing the dishes.  If they want more, leave their food on the table so they know they have access to it and can have it if their body tells them they are genuinely still hungry.  (Avoids power struggles)

4)    Teach them how to listen to their bodies; Think of gradations of Hunger/Fullness; 1-7 from Starving, to Stuffed.  Help them to Listen Carefully and EAT WHEN HUNGRY STOP WHEN DONE, OR FULL.

5)    There are some foods that lend themselves to stimulating your tongue and mouth to the point where it makes it hard to flip the “Off Switch”; some salty foods, or sweet, depending on your palate.  Teach your kid to just step away after some, and remind them they can have more later.  (Try it yourself!)

Teaching kids HOW to WAIT and STOP, is a part of preventing eating problems from developing, and empowers them to eat well for life.


Happy Mealtime!

Kids and Self Esteem: The Real Deal

What parent doesn’t want their kid to feel good about themselves? If I see that commercial one more time, with the little kid batting the ball saying: “I am the best hitter in the world!” or , “I am the best pitcher in the world!”, with the ‘happy soundtrack’ in the background, (what is that “Celebration”?!) one more time, I think I will explode.

The catch line for the commercial is: “That’s OPTIMISM!” I shake my head muttering “No, that’s delusional!”
Call me a bad parent, or an a-hole. All I think is that chances this kid is the best pitcher in the world and can keep thinking and saying that to himself, is such a set up for the day he throws down his glove and stomps off the field because he couldn’t hit the ball, he feels like crap and won’t go back, because he isn’t “the best pitcher”.

Now I know this commercial is trying to promote the idea of OPTIMISM. Okay, so maybe I am being a little ‘concrete’ and overly dramatic in my reaction, but as a therapist who basically spends most of her hours teaching people HOW TO NAVIGATE FEELING LOUSY WITHOUT DOING SOMETHING THAT REINFORCES THEIR BELIEF THAT THEY ARE CRAP, I take issue with this idea that optimism is about being THE BEST. Is that the only way ‘WE CAN?’ More importantly, what kind of set up is this for our kids to think they have to “BE THE BEST”? How many kids are truly going to BE THE BEST? What kind of perfectionism are we promoting? What happens when they can’t THINK they are the best, because they aren’t doing very well that day, that season or simply aren’t actually stellar at that particular activity?

Most of the emphasis seems to be on WINNING. We do live in an ‘uber-‘competitive culture, and we sure do need to learn how to work hard in order to not just compete, but function well at anything. There is way too much focus on the win, and too little on any kind of process. Ironically, in sports, this idea of ‘showing up’ is built into the structure of training and is the discipline.
But what if your kid doesn’t do a sport or any activity that involves structured training? How do you as a parent help give your kid the skills to DO THEIR BEST, which involves trying over and over and over?! (And feeling like you are failing, or feeling frustrated, over and over and over!!!)
So, I offer up some quick tips on helping your kids build self esteem and cope with reality: (The good and the bad). I call it “Skill Training on Being Human 101”

1) IT IS NORMAL to have strengths and weaknesses in all ways.

2) It is NORMAL to feel great about some parts of yourself, and not about others

3) It is NORMAL to feel badly about these parts, or how you have done at times.

4) It is NORMAL to feel anxious, sad, frustrated, bad, insecure, envious, angry, competitive, etc.

5) It is NORMAL to feel ambivalent; two feelings that seem opposite about the same thing: every decision has its bad aspects no matter how good.

Teaching ourselves and our kids to roll with the BAD without getting stuck in it, or getting stuck in behaviors that reinforce the feeling: “I suck” involves the following:

1) Identify the feeling and the negative thoughts that result.

2) Know that feeling states shade thinking, similarly to how the cloud passing over the sun makes things dark. That doesn’t mean the sun went away and the cloud will pass. This is a mood, but it is dark and can feel like the sun will never shine again. IT FEELS DARK DOESN’T MEAN IT IS DARK. THE SUN IS STILL THERE, REMEMBER?

3) Feelings pass. The intensity of feelings shift and it will not be a 10 an hour later, or the next day. Might be 2, or even a 0.

4) When the feeling and intensity dies down, you can think straight and use judgment to problem solve.

5) Give yourself time to let the feeling shift. Set a timer. Distract yourself with things that don’t reinforce the negative. Stick with the feelings use behaviors to help you live with them, or soothe them, not take them away. (Food, drugs, alcohol, anything excessively that is being used to avoid bad feelings all the time just reinforces a belief that you don’t have a right to feel good about yourself. Results that then lend credence to the negative thinking about yourself: i.e. “I am a loser, I have no control”, “I am fat, ugly, awful, etc.feed proof to the insecurity.

6) Give yourself space and time to feel. Give your kid space to let the intensity die down. IF they want you close fine, but don’t get stuck if they are passing the hot potato of the negativity by blaming you. Kids do this a lot and can be part of developing. Help them learn though how to identify their feelings and take responsibility for them after the intensity dies down.

Few are THE BEST at anything. Let’s give ourselves and our kids a nice ‘matter of fact’ attitude toward living that is the scaffolding to TRYING OURS AND THEIR HARDEST. Showing up. Putting one foot in front of the other despite how you feel. Over and over.

That is what builds competence, confidence, self esteem, and, dare I say, ‘real life’ optimism.

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Tweens and Independence

Boy did I love having infants, and boy do I love that my kids are now more independent and can get around on their own! With two teenagers and one 10 year old who is beginning to ask to walk to school on her own this year, I am really feeling my freedom!

But while I might love the extra freedom I am getting from the care and feeding of my kids, some mothers hate it. So we have to acknowledge that the process our kids go through in separating from us; emotionally and physically, is both back and forth, and involves not just their emotional head set, but ours as well.

That is why as I was contemplating writing this piece on tweens and independence, I began to think about how vital a role our own feelings about their independence plays.

You see it I think, practically from birth. There are Moms who are happily (or not so happily but attempting it anyhow), to ‘Ferber-ize’ their kids, while there are others who prefer the Family Bed. This to say, that we need to factor in our own feelings and perhaps, anxieties about our kids’ growing independence. Our feelings and attitudes will affect how they take these developmental steps.

The other thing to consider is where you live, and how much independence is even reasonable or doable. I have to say that this is where living in NYC comes in so handily. By virtue of a fantastic public transportation system, most kids by 7th and certainly 8th grade, are taking buses if not subways, and sometimes taxis, by themselves or with friends. This gives them tremendous independence and the ability to develop a profound sense of mastery and competence.

So, a couple of tips and things to consider when your 5th and 6th grader starts to ask to walk to school on their own, or go to the mall by themselves:

1) By the age of 10, or 11, most kids are wishing for some independence. This is more the norm. If you are terribly anxious about this, try to contain it and not show your child. This will make them more frightened and interfere with their ability to become more competent. Take baby steps and start with very short distances.

2) That being said, check out your own child’s level of maturity and responsibility. You can test them out in small ways. You can start with your 5th or usually 6th graders walking to school with other friends. Follow them the first time to see how they do, (you can tell them and do it very inobtrusively,). This will help them to remember the rules you teach them and give you a chance to observe how they do.

3) Clear and simple rules help. Small kids can’t be seen by cars and should not jaywalk by any means. Even if no cars are coming! Kids these ages can’t yet cognitively judge distances and how far cars are and can approach yet and absolutely need to follow the traffic signals. (In NYC all adults jaywalk and our kids do it when they are with it so it is very important to teach them differently and tell them why.)

4) Cell phones are key here. If you can’t afford one, figure out a way that they call you when they arrive at their destination. Stay in touch so they know that you are within calling distance and can be connected.

5) 7th and 8th graders start to want to go further distances by themselves and are more mature to handle this. Many kids in this age range begin to take buses to after school activities by themselves, if it is not too complicated, and even subways. This depends on your kid. Don’t push it if they are too nervous, but feel them out on their readiness.

There can be a lot of peer pressure towards more independence, which is not necessarily a bad thing. It can help your child feel more comfortable as they travel in a group, or with a friend or two, and it can help you feel that they are not alone. Always give them a way to blame you though, if they are uncomfortable that their friends are doing something or trying to go somewhere alone and they are not quite ready for it. Tell them over and over that they can say “Mom won’t let me do that yet and I will get into trouble” even if you do let them. This will help them save face and come in handy whenever they are in peer pressure situations and are feeling uncomfortable.

So enjoy these nail biting times and know that their independence means some extra freedom for you!

Happy Independence Days!

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