I was actually quite shocked the other day when my nine-year-old asked if I drink wine when I’m stressed. I wasn’t really paying a lot of attention to how that conversation came up because I was working. But when he said this next sentence, I stopped what I was doing:
“I eat key lime jello when I’m stressed.”
He did indeed have a jello in his hand and I recalled that a not long before he had been rebuked for doing something he wasn’t supposed to. I immediately put my work aside and we had a chat about food. My concern was that he would he think food was something you turn to in order to make yourself feel better when in reality food is what we use to properly nutrition our bodies and help gives us energy and keep us healthy.
Since that conversation I went online to make sure what I told him was in line with professional opinions. Here are some tips I’ve learned/used that maybe help you.
Be a role model
In my work to eradicate self hate from teens and eradicate sexual abuse in the world, I’m often telling parents (especially moms) that children will mimic their actions even if you tell them not to. Last week I was speak on a panel about human trafficking when one mom told me how she was sexually abused as a child and, later on, so was her daughter. The mom told me that “she was fine” even though she’d never dealt with her abuse but that her now-adult daughter was not and was acting in ways that were dangerous and scary. I told the mom that the daughter was likely dealing with it the way she was taught to: avoiding, staying in denial and telling herself “she was fine.” I knew, by the way, that mom was not fine because she couldn’t tell me her story without crying. As a survivor and mom of a survivor and advocate for many years, I know what signs I’m looking for most of the time. Mom had them.
And it’s that way with pretty much everything in our lives. I used to say, “I have a big nose” until my teenager started saying it to himself. That stopped me in my tracks. If you say you’re overweight, your children will think they’re overweight. If you tell your kids that their father is an a-hole who never pays child support isn’t good for anything, your child will think they aren’t good for anything either. Your children truly believe they are half of you and half of their other parent. Whatever you say about yourself, they internalize. While I like to joke that I can’t start my morning without coffee, I’m learning that if I talk about food like it’s a comfort, my children will use it that way, too.
Give them the inner tools they need to comfort themselves
Stress happens. We want our children to experience stress on small levels while they’re young so they can deal with it when they’re adults. My husband is a teasing kind of person. I am not. But he often says, “Now when they have to work for a boss they hate, they’ll think ‘this boss has nothing on my dad!’ and they won’t punch the boss in the face.” That, by the way, was a somewhat serious joke. Children have to learn how to handle hard things in life in a healthy way. That’s just one reason I workout at home in front of my kids. I show them a healthier way to handle stress. I also tell them, “Mommy just needs some quiet time to breath, read or take a bath.” And when my son himself seems stressed out or says he just needs some quiet time, I allow him to do that. Usually he’ll play quietly with his toys in his room and just needs some space to be alone.
Get the junk out of the house
If you have a lot of comfort food in your home, your children will gravitate toward it. If you have apples and carrots in your home, they will eat that if that is their only option. We don’t keep soda, fruit juice or other sugary foods in our house very often (anymore) and we don’t eat fast food. Now when our children want to “snack” or feel hungry, they are reaching for crackers or other mostly healthy options. And when we use the word “diet” in our house, our children know what diet really means – it does NOT mean starving yourself to lose weight but rather the food you eat to properly fuel your body.
Cook at home
When you’re cooking at home, eating dinner together and letting your kids help you cook, you’re showing them a positive association with food. Food is not the enemy. It’s not your best friend either. It’s just fuel for your body and can taste amazing.
Quantity over quality
I interviewed a therapist many years ago for a story about raising children. He said too many parents focus on being good parents once a year, what is called the Disney Land parent, rather than making sure they are there are as much as possible. Not every day is going to be fun for children, and that’s an unreasonable expectation. But being there every day, or as much as you physically can, is key to providing your children the comfort they’re seeking. They will talk to you when they’re ready and that is rarely a convenient time for you. But if you are there for them, they won’t need to look to food to find a way to deal with their stress and anxiety.