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 shows up to check that you’re okay, not to tell you that you’re not. It’s your brain’s way of saying, ‘Not sure - there might be some trouble here, but there might not be, but just in case you should be ready for it if it comes, which it might not – but just in case you’d better be ready to run or fight – but it might be totally fine.’ Brains can be so confusing sometimes! 

You have a brain that is strong, healthy and hardworking. It’s magnificent and it’s doing a brilliant job of doing exactly what brains are meant to do – keep you alive. 

Your brain is fabulous, but it needs you to be the boss. Here’s how. When you feel anxious, ask yourself two questions:

- ‘Do I feel like this because I’m in danger or because there’s something brave or important I need to do?’

- Then, ‘Is this a time for me to be safe (sometimes it might be) or is this a time for me to be brave?

And remember, you will always have ‘brave’ in you, and anxiety doesn’t change that a bit.♥️

#positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #parenting #childanxiety #heywarrior #heywarriorbook
The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️

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