Helping Kids & Teens to Gain Control Over Their Overeating

Helping Kids & Teens to Gain Control Over Their Overeating
By Michelle P Maidenberg, PhD

Kids and teens are notoriously impulsive, and as they struggle to make changes to their eating and exercise behaviors, the mind plays a critical, if not the most important, role. Without ever learning what to do, they may not give themselves the time to mull over their thoughts about eating because they are reacting to them so quickly.

Instead, as we can relate to as adults, they often try to rid themselves of their uncomfortable thoughts, either consciously or subconsciously, by avoiding them or acting on them impulsively. Additionally even if they are aware of those thoughts and take time to evaluate them, they might still decide they want to eat seconds on dessert because “it tastes good” and they “must have it.”

For example, a teenager struggling with her weight and trying to make changes might think, “Okay, I just ate dinner and dessert. I feel full, but I still want seconds on the dessert.” Then, she considers the options: “I know I just ate dinner but I still want it” or “Even though I’m full, there’s still more room for a bit more” or “Just this one time” or “I deserve it since I had a really hard day at school.” She will follow up by judging her thoughts “Why can’t I just control myself?” “Why do I have to think that it is just one time?” “Why can’t I realize that it is not just one more time? It’s all the time!” Then dread and hopelessness sets in, followed by giving up. They say, “I’ll never be able to do this” and “What’s the point?”

This series of thoughts about thoughts and feelings about feelings often lead her to feel shameful, guilty, and ineffective. This familiar vicious cycle directly negatively impacts on kids and teens self-confidence and self-efficacy. It most often leads to phases of starting and stopping healthful eating plans and thwarts long-term incremental healthful changes. The goal is for a lifetime practice and approach to healthful behavior which is inclusive of contemplation, processing, problem-solving, and acting mindfully with self-awareness.

Help Kids & Teens To Forge Healthful Eating By:

  • Being a good role model for them. “Do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t work. Do not ask something of them that you are not acting upon yourself. Kids and teens do not appreciate hypocrisy and you lose your credibility with them when you are not following through yourself, or leading by example. Proactively seek opportunities to learn about nutrition, fitness, children’s biological, psychological, social development, etc. so that you can effectively understand and be personally helpful.
  • Evaluating their hunger, cravings, triggers and if they emotionally eat. You can create charts with them that monitor when they tend to be the hungriest, what foods they seem to crave, what triggers them to overeat and whether or not their eating is prompted by any particular emotions (e.g., sadness, frustration, boredom, etc.). It is helpful to do this over a period of a week or two weeks to identify any variations or patterns in behavior.
  • Identifying values connected to their healthful eating. As adults we want them to be prompted to do so because it will promote good health. Kids and teens may not be thinking about it quite in that way and tend not to be overly concerned about their physical functioning and mortality. Try to connect with values that personally matter to them such as agility in sports, the freedom to wear the clothing that they choose to, the independence to try out new physical activities, etc.

[irp posts=”1077″ name=”Guest Post: 6 Tips for Making BEST Decisions”]

  • Making them aware of the excuses and rationalizations they use related to their overeating. There are a litany of them that cross their mind that they either avoid, ignore or dismiss. Some of the more familiar ones are “But it tastes good”, “It’s a special occasion”, “Just this once”, “I’ll make up for it tomorrow”, “But it’s low-fat.”, etc. Remind them that this is their mind speaking, it may sometimes sabotage them because our minds have minds of their own.    
  • Creating space between their “thinking” and “doing.” This mindful practice requires that they pace themselves, observe themselves, and be curious about themselves non-judgmentally. Convey to them that ALL thoughts and feelings that show up in the process are okay, it is how they choose to act on behalf of them. That is inevitably THEIR choice. 
  • Helping them gain the ability to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. When we put effort into changing behaviors, it often comes with angst and feeling of discomfort. This is part of the process that they must accept, recognize and be willing to take on in order for change to effectively happen.
  • Helping them to create distance from their sabotaging thoughts (you can role play with them):

Instead of Saying: “I need to have the cookie now!”

Reframe to Say: “I am having the thought that I need to have the cookie now.”

Instead of Saying: “I should drink the cola because everyone else is drinking it too.”

Reframe to Say: “I am having the thought that I should drink the cola because everyone else is drinking it too.”

  • Assisting them in planning and problem solving through challenges. For example, help them to lightly predict their challenging thoughts, feelings and behaviors in given situations (e.g., going to a family dinner, a birthday party, etc.). Because we are evolving human beings and are impacted by many factors (i.e., how we are feeling physically, emotionally, socially, etc.) we can be unpredictable at times. Leave room for unpredictability too so that when a situation arises it can be effectively worked through.

Just like adults, kids and teens cannot control thoughts or feelings but they do have the ability to choose what actions they want to take. With your help and guidance, they can make decisions in regard to their health that are in line with their values and who they truly want to be. They can be empowered to make positive changes. They deserve that chance.

In Spring 2016, my book, “How To Free Your Child From Overeating”: 53 Strategies For Lifelong Chance Using Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy & Mindfulness will be published. Look out for it for many more tips!


Guest Post: Tips for Making BEST Decisions

About the Author: Michelle P. Maidenberg, PhD

Michelle P. Maidenberg, Ph.D., MPH, LCSW-R, CGP is the President/Clinical Director of Westchester Group Works, a Center for Group Therapy in Harrison, NY. She also maintains a private practice. She is the Co-Founder and Clinical Director of “Thru My Eyes” a nonprofit 501c3 organization that offers free clinically-guided videotaping to chronically medically ill individuals who want to leave video legacies for their children and loved ones. 

Dr. Maidenberg is Adjunct Faculty at New York University (NYU). She created and coordinates the Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Program at Camp Shane, a health & weight management camp for children and teens in NY, AZ, GA, CA & TX and Shane Resorts, a resort focusing on health & weight management for young adults and adults in NY & TX.  She is author of “Free Your Child From Overeating” 53 Strategies For Lifelong Change Using Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy & Mindfulness which is forthcoming in Spring 2016.

You can find Michelle via her websites,www.MichelleMaidenberg.com or www.WestchesterGroupWorks.com, and follow her on Facebook or Twitter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Follow Hey Sigmund on Instagram

For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting

Pin It on Pinterest