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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When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.
Sometimes we all just need space to talk to someone who will listen without giving advice, or problem solving, or lecturing. Someone who will let us talk, and who can handle our experiences and words and feelings without having to smooth out the wrinkles or tidy the frayed edges. 

Our kids need this too, but as their important adults, it can be hard to hush without needing to fix things, or gather up their experience and bundle it into a learning that will grow them. We do this because we love them, but it can also mean that they choose not to let us in for the wrong reasons. 

We can’t help them if we don’t know what’s happening in their world, and entry will be on their terms - even more as they get older. As they grow, they won’t trust us with the big things if we don’t give them the opportunity to learn that we can handle the little things (which might feel seismic to them). They won’t let us in to their world unless we make it safe for them to.

When my own kids were small, we had a rule that when I picked them up from school they could tell me anything, and when we drove into the driveway, the conversation would be finished if they wanted it to be. They only put this rule into play a few times, but it was enough for them to learn that it was safe to talk about anything, and for me to hear what was happening in that part of their world that happened without me. My gosh though, there were times that the end of the conversation would be jarring and breathtaking and so unfinished for me, but every time they would come back when they were ready and we would finish the chat. As it turned out, I had to trust them as much as I wanted them to trust me. But that’s how parenting is really isn’t it.

Of course there will always be lessons in their experiences we will want to hear straight up, but we also need them to learn that we are safe to come to.  We need them to know that there isn’t anything about them or their life we can’t handle, and when the world feels hard or uncertain, it’s safe here. By building safety, we build our connection and influence. It’s just how it seems to work.♥️
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#parenting #parenthood #mindfulparenting
Words can be hard sometimes. The right words can be orbital and unconquerable and hard to grab hold of. Feelings though - they’ll always make themselves known, with or without the ‘why’. 

Kids and teens are no different to the rest of us. Their feelings can feel bigger than words - unfathomable and messy and too much to be lassoed into language. If we tap into our own experience, we can sometimes (not all the time) get an idea of what they might need. 

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It takes time to reach full flight in anything, but in the meantime the stumbling can make even the strongest of hearts feel vulnerable. The more we focus on process over outcome (their courage to try over the result), and who they are over what they do (their courage, tenacity, curiosity over the outcome), the safer they will feel to try new things or hard things. We know they can do hard things, and the beauty and expansion comes first in the willingness to try. 
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#parenting #mindfulparenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparent
Never in the history of forever has there been such a  lavish opportunity for a year to be better than the last. Not to be grabby, but you know what I’d love this year? Less opportunities that come in the name of ‘resilience’. I’m ready for joy, or adventure, or connection, or gratitude, or courage - anything else but resilience really. Opportunities for resilience have a place, but 2020 has been relentless with its servings, and it’s time for an out breath. Here’s hoping 2021 will be a year that wraps its loving arms around us. I’m ready for that. x
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