I’m always looking for new ways to share information about mental health and wellbeing that will help parents, carers, teachers and young people, and my new webinar series DomIn60Minutes is my latest undertaking.
My expert guest and I talk for an hour about all things ‘mental health and young adults’, whilst answering questions from our audience of parents/ carers and teachers.
Last week I was delighted to have Dr Sanni Norweg (a psychologist and NHS lead of the Bristol Eating Disorders team) as my guest, to talk about food, eating and body issues, as this is a complex and challenging topic which worries a lot of families.
In this blog I summarise some of our key take home points (although we might also rerun the webinar topic in a few months as it has proved so popular):
1. The key is compassion; food/ eating/ body issues are common and complicated, and usually start when a person is trying to control life when it feels uncertain and out of control. They control the one thing no one else can control for them- what they eat or look like. Talking about the topic is highly sensitive, so compassion and kindness is crucial. Tough love does NOT work. Parents need to be the ‘safe harbour’ the young person can always come back to when things are difficult. Be loving and consistent in your approach.
2. Talk about feelings not food; whatever behaviour they are showing, even if it is distressing or difficult, don’t focus on that so much as how they are feeling. Look for the reasons underlying the behaviours. Address the ‘why’ rather than the ‘what’ they are doing. You might say ‘I’ve noticed ‘x’ (you seem stressed/ anxious- don’t mention food/ weight/body) and is it ok to talk about it?’.
3. Don’t avoid addressing difficult topics; don’t think ‘it’s a phase and they will get over it’, and don’t delay seeking help if they (or you) need more professional support. Don’t collude in secret behaviours. Talk to someone if you need to get some perspective or advice; a friend, your GP, the school, but don’t ignore it. If your teen doesn’t want to talk to you, ask who they would rather talk to (a teacher/ counsellor/ GP/ another trusted adult).
4. Eating issues thrive in secrecy; look out for secretive behaviours, such as hiding food, secret eating, or food disappearing from the fridge or cupboards. Discuss it with them gently, carefully, and compassionately, but never at mealtimes or when food is around. Be discreet and private when you speak to them, but tackle it, don’t ignore it.
5. Be a healthy role model; talk about being fit and healthy, not about weight, food and calories, or body shapes. Never talk about ‘good/ bad food’. Young people have ‘black and white’ thinking and will internalise this information and may stick to it rigidly. Impress upon them that balance is key, a little bit of everything is fine, and lead by example. Focus on healthy choices, being active (in moderation), and even if they have gained a little bit of weight in lockdown, don’t discuss that, or point it out, but instead encourage active behaviours and a healthy mixed diet. Oh, and never ‘ban’ foods. That’s a sure-fire way to create a drive to find it elsewhere! Create positive attitudes to food and talk about appreciating the strengths of our bodies, rather than flaws.
6. Boost self-esteem by focusing on non-appearance related traits; tell them they are kind or strong, or a fantastic team player, or a fab friend. Never discuss appearance, weight, looks or shape. Teach them non-shape or weight related ways to feel good about themselves (it’s good for us too to try this!).
I hope these few specific points from what was an absolutely jam-packed and informative webinar will help you to feel more confident in talking with, and supporting, your young adult (though these tips are useful for anyone, whatever age, of course!). Eating, food and body related issues are common, and there is much we can all do to reduce the risk of them developing, or deteriorating, in our young people. We can all help!
*The website Sanni mentioned is here- with an amazing PDF of resources on the page!
Watch out for my next DomIn60Minutes webinar too, coming in the autumn!