Ask an expert: 'I’m scared my teen will develop an eating disorder'
Each week, adult and specialist adolescent psychotherapist Belinda Kelly answers your queries
Q My young teenage daughter is struggling with her body. She comes downstairs crying, saying that most of her clothes don’t fit her and she hates how fat she’s getting.
It’s started to affect her social life. She won’t go to discos because she doesn’t want to wear clothes that show off her tummy and thighs. She isn’t even overweight, but she has gained a few pounds recently as she eats carbohydrates and sugars between meals.
I am trying to teach her how proteins can fill her up between meals, but I am getting really confused and I don’t know what to do. I had an eating disorder when I was a teenager and I am scared that she will develop one too.
Answer: First, I want to start by helping you to separate your fears from your daughter’s struggle with her body image. Given your own difficulties with food, it must be hard to hear your daughter talk about herself this way. But you have to remember that she is not you. She has a very different journey ahead of her.
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You can take comfort knowing that you have survived an eating disorder. You are in a solid place to emotionally support her with any doubts she has about her growing self. I’d like to help you explore your relationship with food and feelings.
I wonder what gets stirred up in you when she panics about her growing body? Do you worry that she’ll become overweight? And how would you feel if she became fat or overweight? Have you come to understand what forced you into the grip of your eating disorder?
Sadly, a lot of women have an unhealthy relationship with their bodies. They view them as something that needs to be manipulated or starved. The feminine ideal is linked to being thin.
Many mothers have struggled with disordered or restrictive eating or some form of poor body image. When a mother is dissatisfied with her body or stands in front of a mirror looking at her thighs or her stomach, her daughter will internalise distorted beliefs about her own body and her relationship to food. If a mother only eats small amounts of food, or certain types of food, her daughter will be negatively influenced by this behaviour.
It’s really important to examine and heal our relationship with food and body image in order to teach them a different experience. I want to be really clear here and say that mothers do not cause eating disorders. That misconception has long been debunked. Every person’s eating disorder is as unique as they are.
The drive for perfectionism has become normalised in contemporary society with our perfect lives and our high expectations to achieve.
When young girls worry about their weight, it can be because they are perfectionists. They are externally referenced, which means they worry a lot about how they are perceived by others. Instead of being immersed in living their lives, they worry about what they should do.
They have a strong sense of duty and are often described as ‘sensible’. They are very goal orientated, which is more to do with being accepted by others and less to do with developing their own integrity. Their need to be the top student or to lose weight is driven by inadequacy.
Because of this perfectionism, they can be their own biggest critic. They see their achievements as extensions of themselves — which means they never feel good enough. On the outside, they might look successful, but on the inside, they are trapped under a lot of pressure.
In my experience, when girls express issues with their weight, everyone gets activated. When too much urgency comes into play, we lose sight of the teenager. We start to focus on the behaviour or the food.
I know that you want to help by teaching her about nutrition, but if you focus on cutting down her carbs, she may worry that you think she is overweight, and then you’ll both be thrown back into the fat/thin dynamic.
As psychoanalyst Hilde Bruch, who is known foremost for her work on eating disorders and obesity, wrote: “The worry about being skinny or fat is just a smokescreen. That is not the real illness. The real illness is how you feel about yourself.”
Your daughter’s fears are not about food. She may be struggling with her emerging identity as a young adult. There are so many internal and external demands on the transitioning adolescent.
She may be taking herself too seriously and finding it hard to just be. Or she may not feel good enough around her friends.
You can help support her by affirming that she is enough as she is. Don’t focus on her achievements. Try to play them down.
Remind her that she is not loved for what she does. She is loved for who she is. Tell her she is precious just for being here. Print out the mantra “I am enough. I do enough. I have enough” and put it on her bedroom wall or in the kitchen.
Sometimes teenagers who are hard on themselves can be out of touch with their physical or emotional selves. They deny themselves pleasure and struggle with spontaneity. It’s all work and goal orientated.
Teach her to be sensuous by working with pottery clay or find a kit to make perfume at home. Or buy her essential oils and give her a massage.
Show her how to be spontaneous by starting a sudden pillow fight in her bedroom or turn up the music really loud and dance around the house.
Find a relaxed yoga class that you can do together. Yoga is wonderful for teaching us to love the power of our bodies. Find a personality quiz online and help her to begin to define herself, or read through your birth signs in an astrology book to help her work out who she is becoming.
Enable her to make choices without feeling anxious by offering her two options. For example, do you want lasagne or rice for dinner?
Adolescents are often fearful of making the wrong choice. This will help grow her inner voice so she can feel more solid in herself. Talk to her about times when you have really worried about what others have thought of you, and how you worked hard to care less about how you are perceived.
Keep a close eye on her eating habits. If she starts to restrict certain foods or becomes vegan, take her to a therapist so that you can both feel supported.