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.

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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