Teaching Kids Self-Regulation Skills Around Food: It’s Hard to Leave Well Enough Alone
I have a confession to make. After working in the field of disordered eating for 25 years, I still made a grave mistake this morning with my own teenagers. I drove into their lane and told them how and what to eat instead of letting them self-regulate. It was not my proudest parent/nutritionist moment when I said, “I didn’t buy avocados so they could get dumped in the compost,” when they didn’t have the stomach for breakfast. One of my daughters is recovering from COVID and still has an off sense of taste, so food can sometimes be nauseating. I know I’m being an anxious mom when I push food on her. I also worried about how my other daughter had ultimate frisbee practice later in the day. I told her that not having a good breakfast might harm her muscles.
This is all true, but I know the golden rule about parenting teens. Telling them what to do — especially about things they are meant to be responsible for themselves (like choosing what and how to eat) — will backfire.
Now, if I had a teen with an eating disorder who was teetering on the brink of hospitalization or losing weight when they should be growing, it would be good limit-setting for me to tell her/him/they that social or sports participation will be limited if they don’t eat a good meal. In this case, I could be saving a life. I strongly encourage parents to enforce no social or athletic time if food isn’t eaten in the case of a chronically undereating teen. I also think it was okay to tell my daughter she could be 5 minutes late for school to eat her breakfast. Priorities.
However, I crossed a line when my twin daughters (they love to gang up on me) started blaming me for being late for school. I was up early so I could shower before the morning drive. I made them their favorite avocado toast and bacon, so I was upset when they didn’t eat it. I felt that rejection of mama-food-love that I wish I didn’t take so personally. I reminded them that I’m not an alarm clock, and they need to clearly tell me if they want a morning nudge at a particular time. And, despite my nudging, they are ultimately responsible for getting up on time for school at age 16.
Furthermore, it’s not acceptable — to me — for them to leave the house without breakfast. Just because “everyone skips breakfast” doesn’t make it right. And that’s when I crossed the line and inserted, “I don’t buy avocados at your request so that they can be dumped in the compost.”
I started to get resentful and take it personally that my teens were not eating the breakfast I got up early to make and the ripe avocados that our family is privileged to afford. I was way over into their lane of self-regulating their food intake and creating a power struggle around it. My anxiety about them eating well was present because I was projecting characteristics of my clients onto my non-eating-disordered kids. I was also being a very typically concerned mom. I realized I was being overbearing and pushy with food when my daughter needed to complete the power struggle. She refused the avocado toast with bacon, her favorite, even though I brought it into the car.
She needed to find out that skipping breakfast doesn’t feel good without my moving over into her lane. In fact, she did. She used the word “hangry” later.
Every time we tell our kids what to eat or coerce them into eating something in particular (veggies before dessert, more of this, less of that), we are overriding their innate capacity to make decisions about food and learn to self-regulate. We tell them someone outside of their body knows better than they do about what to eat, which is — as my teens eloquently would put it — bullshit. As parents, we all need to step back, make a diversity of foods available, and let our kids learn to regulate and listen to their bodies. This gives them the life-long skill of knowing just how to eat in a balanced, healthful way — incorporating pleasure from food as well as nourishment. I have strived to do this, and my daughters are good, attuned, balanced eaters who enjoy food. I don’t need to muck this up.
But I’m here to say, with so much empathy, that this is NOT an easy job for a parent. It’s hard when you know some things about nutrition and want them to eat a balanced diet. It’s hard when one of your kids has some weight loss after a severe illness, and you are worried about her brain development. It’s hard when you have an athlete who may not be eating enough to fuel their sport. Yes, it’s hard just to let go of that time when your kids needed you so much more for feeding (even if the high chair is ancient history).
If you have a child who is not thriving or losing weight during a crucial growth period like adolescence, please seek medical, psychological, and nutritional help, ideally from professionals who have expertise in treating and preventing eating disorders and operate from a Health-at-Every-Size (HAES) and non-body-shaming perspective. (I wish I could say that these professionals are easy to find. They tend to have very full practices because they are in demand right now.) Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses and need to be taken seriously. There is nothing sadder than a woman who has suffered for decades because her food and body image challenges have not been noticed or treated. But other than in these more extreme cases, it’s really best for us parents to leave well enough alone and let our kids learn by experience. Please encourage them to trust their bodies’ hunger and fullness instead of listening to what the social media influencers say to eat. No one knows your kids’ bodies better than they do.
It humbles me to notice that I quickly fell into the same trap when I felt stressed and vulnerable as a parent this morning. If I can make this error, then, of course, someone without training in adolescent nutrition and mental health will do it, too. I invite you to approach your parenting, as always, with self-compassion and let go of perfectionism. We are all doing our best. If you are reading this, then there is a good chance you are doing more than most to help your children build healthy relationships with food and their bodies. Standing back and saying less is hard, but it’s critical to allow our children and teens to build essential self-regulation skills.
After school, my daughters came home and made themselves an almost identical meal, complete with avocado toast. They got the message that mom cares, and they dealt with the “hangry” that came with meal-skipping. They asked if we could get an earlier start the next day so they’d have more time for breakfast. They learned that it didn’t feel good to miss the breakfast their bodies are so accustomed to and need. We all know that prying teens out of bed in the morning is a challenge, and we’ll do our imperfect best with that.
I’ll try to remember to let my daughters decide how much of their breakfast to eat — whether they make it or I do. I know I don’t have to make them breakfast in the morning, and they are fortunate I want to get up early before work to do so. I only have a couple more years with them before they plan to go off to college. All bets will be off then, and they’ll have to really figure out how to manage to feed themselves well. Making us all breakfast is something that I can still do. But the caregiving needs to stop there. I’ll let them decide how much of that meal to eat. I will resist the urge to lecture or encourage eating and instead back off and let them self-regulate. Maybe someday, when they have a good adult relationship with food and trust their bodies, they will thank me for it.