Monday 22 January 2018

This life: My troubled teen daughter wants to turn vegan

Spokesperson for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), actress Pamela Anderson creates the first all-vegan shake at Millions of Milkshakes in West Hollywood, California on April 9, 2010 . AFP PHOTO / GABRIEL BOUYS (Photo credit should read GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)
Spokesperson for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), actress Pamela Anderson creates the first all-vegan shake at Millions of Milkshakes in West Hollywood, California on April 9, 2010 . AFP PHOTO / GABRIEL BOUYS (Photo credit should read GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)

Orla Barry

My daughter has declared that she is going to become a vegan. She has been a vegetarian for a number of years which was difficult enough but now she has decided to take it further. She is only in her mid teens and still living and eating at home. She argues that she will cook for herself but I've looked at what she is eating and it would barely feed a mouse.

My husband, who was a vegan for a short time, is proud of her and has been full of encouragement which weakens my argument completely. I don't think it's good for a growing teenager but I also worry about those who are influencing her and what their purpose might be. I know they are musicians that she got to know during the summer and are a good few years older than her.

She has been going through a tough time in school and these new friendships seem to have really cheered her up. She's non-stop talk about how she's dreading going back to school next month and suggesting that she turn to music full time. Her dad, who is a musician, is not overly concerned. I'm beside myself that she will drop out in her final year.

That aside though, her weight dropped dramatically last year and for a while I worried she might have an eating disorder. I don't want to pressurise her too much in case she stops eating. I feel like I can't do anything right.

Orla replies:

It's one thing trying to get around the various decisions of a teenage daughter, it's quite something else when you're battling a husband too. Deciding to turn vegan is a serious move. It requires plenty of innovative cooking and personal commitment. I would be more concerned about her view of school and the year ahead. Dramatic weight loss is a worrying sign and one that requires constant attention.

The teenager who turns vegetarian can be a big headache for the rest of a meat-eating family but many teenagers learn the best way to ensure they get the food they want is to cook it themselves.

Most vegetarians I know are great cooks because they started young and had to be more innovative in their dinner choices. It can be a good excuse for parents to demand that their teenager takes responsibility for their own cooking.

Turning vegan though is a big deal. The more you read into products, the more you discover you can't have. It doesn't really matter who persuaded her to go this extra mile. If you criticise their lifestyle choices you'll only cause greater tension at home.

Your husband is supportive of the choice. How about you let him take up some of the responsibility? It might be an opportunity to sit down with her and discuss what foods she will eat and products she now wants to avoid. Most vegans find the going tough and it can take great resilience to maintain that way of life. If she decides to backpack for a year or go on a holiday to Europe, she might find herself going very hungry.

As she knows, I'm sure, there's much more than just food to consider and when body products, clothing and shoes etc are all accounted for, it can seem a huge responsibility.

There is something, however, to be said for your daughter coming to this decision. After all she has not walked in and declared that she is going to turn to drugs. I'm sure there are very good thought-provoking reasons behind her decision that might put the rest of us non-vegans to shame.

If this is a lifestyle she wants to pursue then maybe rather than fearing it, find out more about it and support her in leading as healthy a life as possible. Last year was a tough one for your daughter and she must have been pretty unhappy in school for her weight to drop so significantly. Finding new friends during the summer is surely a good thing. Just because they are older is not necessarily a cause for worry.

If you are concerned get to know them. You say they are musicians, but have you spent any time in their company? Maybe they would never think of popping over to your house but why not visit some of the places where they perform? It might help if you strike up a friendship with one of them to understand what her relationship with them amounts to.

The issue of her weight loss is one to keep an eye on. Most females will admit to having issues with their weight at some point. So much emotional energy is attached to the food we consume that it can be easy for a vulnerable teenager to start using it as a form of control.

When life seems chaotic, their body size and what they put into it can be one thing they feel they have a say over. An unhappy school experience can certainly worsen the problem.

Your daughter sounds like a sensitive soul. Her decisions sound like the traits of a thoughtful individual who will blossom into an exceptional adult with the right supports. The school system can be incredibly alienating and stifling to those who don't fall into the mainstream academic ideal.

Creative sorts are often lost at school. This, however, is her final year and you're right to think you should do whatever it takes to encourage her to complete her secondary education. One year seems like a lifetime as a teenager but within a matter of months she will out of there and able to live the life she chooses.

I suggest despite your reservations you support her lifestyle choice as regards veganism and at least she may feel she has some support when heading back to school. Inform yourself about what's involved. This sort of support from you might surprise her so much she might be less militant in her views about leaving school early. If you do support her veganism you can also ensure that she gets sufficient calories and proteins required for her age.

Heading back to school can be a daunting prospect for the unhappy student but what about organising a treat for her in the mid-term break? If she realises she only has weeks rather than months before she can do something she thoroughly enjoys, it will make things more bearable. When Christmas arrives, the year is half way over.

If things do become unbearable there are many schools that teach just leaving cert students. In many cases they are accounting for those who didn't receive the points they wanted for college. These colleges are often quite different from the typical school experience as they expect students to take more responsibility for their own study. These may be an option if she becomes overwhelmed.

We all have our phases. If you can sit tight for another couple of years, you may soon see a daughter who has become a young adult with a big heart and is someone to be proud of. Biting your tongue for a few months might just be worth it.

Orla Barry is Social Affairs Correspondent with Newstalk 106-108FM and presents ‘The Green Room’ on Mondays from 10pm-12am

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