We frequently think of teenagers as being the ones struggling with image issues, calling themselves “fat,” and starving themselves. But, body image issues can start much earlier.
Recently the mother of one of my daughter’s six-year-old classmates told me her daughter had stopped eating ice cream because she thinks she is the “fattest in the class.” Last year, my daughter had the same issue. She wouldn’t eat because she also believed she was the “fattest in the class” and kept repeating how she thought she was “fat.”
I approached the situation by reminding her that only a doctor can diagnose weight issues. We talked about the meaning of “diagnose” and I asked her to stop diagnosing herself. I also talked to her about science and data, showing her her growth chart. I showed her where she was at and what is considered overweight. The data showed that she was not overweight, confirming that she had no reason to think otherwise. In the end, I told her to stop comparing herself with other kids because we all come in different shapes, colors, and sizes. I encouraged her to let the growth chart speak for itself. Since that conversation, my daughter no longer calls herself “fat” and has resumed eating normally.
Whether you have a young child or a teen, it is important to deliver a similar message when talking to them about weight. You need to halt these thoughts before they lead to a lifelong self-image issue. As parents, we have the ability to correct these unhealthy thoughts. Rather than brushing them off and insisting that our children eat even when they are refusing for these reasons, present them with the data. Teach them how to think about things logically as a child and you will be setting them up to be a happier adult.
If you are a parent of a teen, chances are you have felt out-of-the-loop at some point or another. You feel like your teen doesn’t talk to you anymore. They don’t tell you anything. They don’t include you on what is happening at school, in relationships, or with friends. They don’t share their worries or their stresses. They lock themselves in their rooms or hide behind their phones and shut you out.
But, why? Why is it that teens don’t talk to their parents?
1.) They don’t want to get in trouble — This one comes up a lot in therapy. We teach them courage. We help them look at what is better: hiding the problem and making things worse, or coming clean, taking responsibility and facing things head on.
2.) They don’t have the communication skills— They simply don’t know how to talk about a subject, they don’t know how to approach it when speaking with a parent. In therapy we teach teens communication skills. We teach them how to be effective communicators and to think things through before starting the discussion.
3.) They want to protect us — They don’t want us to feel uncomfortable or to worry about them. They don’t want to feel like they are adding more to your plate. In therapy, we teach teens that it is up to the adult to protect the child, not the other way around.
4.) They fear judgment — They worry what are mom/dad going to think of me. They worry about disappointing their parents. In therapy, we teach that it is ok to be authentic and we help them to navigate judgment in a healthy way.
5.) They want to be independent— They are teenagers. Of course, they want to feel like they are on their own. They think it’s cool to not tell their parents things. They want to figure it out on their own. In therapy, we teach healthy independence and when it is ok to ask for help.
We want our teens to feel comfortable sharing things with us. The best thing you can do as a parent to help facilitate conversation is to be calm and approachable. Don’t jump to conclusions. Take your child to do special things, like go out for coffee or go for a walk in the park or to get ice cream. Those things will give them a place where they will feel more comfortable opening up to you. You can always seek out the help of a licensed counselor to help your child learn healthy coping and communication skills.
As a parent, I understand that “I know what my child needs” feeling. We are, after all, the ones who have been with them since they were born. We have changed their diapers, kissed their boo-boos, and held their hand every step of the way. So, when the time comes where you find out your teen might not always need you the way you think, it can be hard.
I had a parent of a teen say to me once, “my teen told me she talked about XYZ during therapy. I have never heard about those things. That’s not even the issue, her issues are ABC. I know, because I am her mom!” I told the parent how great it was that her teen was confiding in her and opening up to her about what she had talked about in therapy. Then I asked how the parent approached the conversation. She said, “I told her that she should have talked about ABC.”
Ask what is important to them?
Sometimes as parents we are looking too much at the big picture and we miss the fundamental details. We think we are helping but we are actually not. We forget to look at what matters to our child, our teenager. We fail to ask what is important to them?
I asked the parent how she felt that the teen was opening up to her about what she was talking about in therapy, and expressing what was important to her? The parent stopped for a minute, stunned. She admitted that she had never thought of things that way. She was spending too much time hovering that she missed the opportunity her teen was giving her to connect. You don’t need to hover, you don’t need to be the “cool” parent, sometimes you just need to be a “still” parent. Take it in, be the ears your teen needs instead of inserting what you think you know they need.
Jessica is having trouble concentrating in her math class because she is getting very little sleep at night. She lies awake for hours worrying about why her best friend doesn’t talk to her anymore, whether everyone is looking at her funny, whether she will bomb the math test tomorrow, whether her parents are really going to divorce, and other catastrophic what-ifs.
Tara seems to have the “perfect” life with a home, career and children that she adores yet she feels overwhelmed. Now her things are not getting done and she doesn’t laugh as often anymore. She doesn’t sleep much and when she does, she often wakes up heart pounding and palms sweaty, thinking she is going crazy and fearing “her perfect life won’t last”.
From the time a girl reaches puberty until late adulthood, she is twice as likely to have anxiety as a man. While men are not immune to anxiety, men and women’s differences in brain chemistry and hormonal levels in different life stages may be pieces of the puzzle as to why women are more vulnerable to anxiety during stressful events.
If you or your daughter experiences anxiety, there are things to do about it.
- Allowing Anxiety: Forcing yourself or your child not to worry or minimize the anxious feelings can create even more anxiety. It can be defeating when those worries just won’t go away. We need a healthy dose of worrying to keep us safe or get things done; it has a purpose so we don’t want to eliminate it completely. Since it serves a function, it’s important to take anxiety seriously and allow it’s existence so we can shift it to our benefits.
- Relaxation Skills: Breathing and visualization helps you calm down when you are agitated. Relaxation techniques need to be age-appropriate and don’t have to be boring. Some can even be done while you are in the middle of a task. For teens, there are apps such as Breathe that can help.
- Movement: It’s understandable that when you are anxious, the last you want to do is to get out of bed. It may seem cumbersome but setting a goal to do something as simple as walking around the block can work wonders. Sometimes staying indoor with the blinds closed may affect your circadian rhythm (aka. body clock), which can disrupted your sleeping pattern. Going outside and getting some sun and air can help “reset” your body clock so you can sleep better at night, feel more refreshed the next day, and have better mood.
- Talk to a licensed therapist who is in tuned with teen and women’s issues, and values whole-health approach. A good therapist is able to listen, teach relaxation techniques, and tailor a therapeutic plan that best fits you. The first session is usually paperwork and getting to know each other, so give it a few sessions before deciding whether the therapist is right for you.
While nobody’s life is completely worry-free, but anxiety can be manageable and it doesn’t have to control your whole life. You don’t need to do this alone.
Mabel Yiu is a Marriage and Family Therapist specializing in girls and women’s mental health at the Women’s Therapy Institute in Palo Alto, CA. You can reach her at email@example.com for more tips or tools, or schedule an online appointment.
Header image credit: Huffington Post