Friday 20 April 2018

My 17-year-old daughter won't eat what I cook for her

Illustration: Maisie McNeice.
Illustration: Maisie McNeice.
David Coleman

David Coleman

Our parenting expert on how to encourage a teenage daughter to eat healthier and whether it would be best to start again in September for a four-year-old who has found it hard to settle in school.

Question: I have a 17-year-old daughter who eats very little and is underweight. She will not eat a proper home-cooked dinner.

I worry about her and am always trying to get her to eat more. She eats food from the school canteen, but when it is cooked at home, she will only pick at it. She says she does not like red meat but will not discuss an alternative. Mind you, if she gets takeaway food, she will eat plenty.

Both a dietician and a doctor have advised her to eat healthy food, but to no avail. What can I do to get her to eat better?

David replies: On the face of it, there doesn't seem to be a lot more that you can do to encourage your daughter to eat healthier and to eat larger amounts.

The fact that she does "eat plenty" when it comes to takeaways and the school canteen, suggests that her eating is not restricted as a way to reduce calories or to maintain a low body weight (even though you do note that she is underweight currently).

While we may think that a child's or teenager's eating is about food choices or food preferences, it can often be about other things like power, control, body image or emotional state. Indeed, I wonder if that is the case in this situation.

Using food as a tool to exert power is quite common in children. There are very few things that small children have total control over, but typically, they have control over what goes into them and what comes out of them.

Often, as a reaction to feeling either out of control (because stuff happens to them over which they have no control) or as a reaction to feeling over-controlled (like someone else is trying to make too many decisions in their lives), children will try to regain personal control by focusing on their eating or their toileting.

So, children might refuse to eat, or decide to eat, certain things; they may become constipated; or they may even start soiling or wetting themselves.

It could be that her choice not to eat what you cook may be more about the dynamic between you rather than about a desire, on her part, to restrict eating per se.

I wonder if she chooses not to eat what you prepare as a way of trying to exert power?

If she believes that you put a lot of store by eating healthy home-cooked foods, she may feel that by rejecting these kinds of foods, she is showing you that you can't control her.

I don't know what kind of relationship you have with your daughter, or have had over the years. But I do wonder if you have found it to be quite conflict-ridden, or if you have found that you have to apply lots of limits to her and her behaviour.

If so, then her eating choices may indeed be her way of "fighting" back.

She may feel that she is justified in retaliating against you, knowing that she can annoy or upset you by not eating what you cook for her. It may be that she is "getting her own back on you" for what she perceives as your attempts to control her or to force her to make certain life choices.

Another possible dynamic that may be maintaining her eating habits is the fact that she knows that you worry about her eating. Not eating the home-cooked food that you prepare may actually be a subconscious way of getting "minded" by you, or getting special attention from you.

At the moment, you seem more concerned about her eating than she is. I think that you and she will be best served if you take less interest in, and responsibility for, her food and eating, and give her more responsibility for what and when she eats.

Her decision to eat plenty when she has takeaway, or more processed foods, shows that she is happy enough to eat and that she won't let herself starve.

By all means, offer her healthy foods, but let her make a genuinely free choice to eat them or not. This will be good preparation for when she moves out of home (in the next number of years) and you won't be able to monitor and influence what she eats anyway.

I think you will find that you have a happier relationship with her when you choose not to worry about her food, but rather, let her worry about her own food and her own health.

My 4-year-old daughter is getting upset every day going to school. I wonder should I take her out?

Question: My daughter was four in April and was absolutely determined to start "big school" in September, so we sent her. Despite her enthusiasm, she found it very hard to settle and I really felt I had made a bad choice sending her so young. We persevered and after about three weeks, she did settle. But over the last two weeks, she is back to square one, crying every day, not wanting to go to school.

The question is, do I persist with school or take her out and give her the rest of the year to get stronger and maybe more able for primary school?

David replies: It is often difficult to decide what age to send children to school at. I am generally a fan of waiting until children are five, but when you have a child who will be four-and-three-quarters or older, it can be tempting to let them go at that age.

Your daughter's birthday, in April, does pose a dilemma though. She was nearly four-and-a-half in September and so I can imagine it was a big decision to make. By leaving her for another full year, you may have been concerned that she'd be bored or unchallenged in preschool. No doubt, you balanced that against the possibility that she might be overwhelmed by school.

You sound like you were swayed, and went against your gut instinct by her determination and desire to go to school. Apparently, I too was madly eager to go to school and, since I have a September birthday, my parents took the decision to enrol me for school on my fourth birthday.

I was chuffed the first day and then adamant, on the second, that I'd experienced it now so I wasn't going back!

My parents persevered and so I too eventually settled. Mind you, I changed schools at the end of fifth class and so took the opportunity to repeat fifth class in the new school and, by the time I got to exams in secondary school, I was glad of the bit of extra maturity.

Your daughter's early struggle to settle is not uncommon and may have occurred no matter what age she was, or how ready for school she was.

Many children experience a separation anxiety when leaving the comparative security of home (or a familiar preschool). That anxiety is often just a stage that passes when the child becomes familiar with their new surroundings and more secure in their relationship with their teacher.

It is quite possible then, that your daughter has in fact settled into school, after a period of natural separation anxiety, as she had a couple of months without issue. If that is the case, then the crying, currently, may be related to something specific that is happening either with the teacher, her classmates or, socially, in the yard.

She is very young for you to be able to discuss the issue with her. It'll be hard for her to explain whatever it is that is upsetting her so much. I could imagine she hasn't been very forthcoming in trying to explain why she doesn't want to go to school!

Your first step might be to chat to her teacher to see if anything is changing in the class, with the academic work, or socially, with her peers.

That might give you some insight, which will help you to determine if this is just her reaction to any change. If it is a reaction to change, then you could hope that she will settle again once the transition passes and a new routine becomes established.

If the issue is social, then you may need support from her teacher to help her feel more included, or more able for the social interaction.

It is really only if you find out that nothing has changed in the school for your daughter, that you might want to reconsider her readiness for "big school".

Perhaps your original gut feeling, that she was a bit young to start in school, was correct. If you do decide to withdraw her and start her again next year, I can't imagine it will have any particular negative repercussions for her.

Assuming that her readiness is the issue currently, I would imagine that another nine or 10 months at home or in preschool might leave her more emotionally and psychologically ready for school.

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