No Topic Is Off Limits When Communicating With Your Child
I was that kid. The child who was ashamed and never wanted to talk about my eating and exercise behaviors and the kid that was not approached about it in a supportive, caring and compassionate way to foster that conversation. As a teen, I didn’t feel good in and about my body. During those moments that I overheard my peers discussing the topic of weight, I automatically assumed that it was directed at me in a critical way. It was always on my mind, whenever I thought about eating and whenever I ate. I attempted tactics to deny and get rid of my uncomfortable thoughts. No matter how hard I tried, they remained.
I continue to speak to many kids and teens specifically about their challenges with their eating and exercise behaviors, among their other behaviors. They often express feeling isolated in their challenges and further describe feelings of deep shame, guilt and hopelessness. Just last week I sat with an athlete who shared that when she does practice drills, she’s always at the end of the line. She welled up with tears because of feeling embarrassed and insecure because her speed and agility is compromised due to her current behaviors.
Interestingly, I have consistently been getting feedback from a number of parents who are interested in my book, “Free Your Child From Overeating” 53 Mind-Body Strategies For Lifelong Health, that they are extremely reluctant to raise the issue with their children. One parent expressed, “I am currently reading the book in my room. If my daughter sees me reading it, she may get defensive and angry. Not simple.” Raising and discussing uncomfortable thoughts and feelings is never easy. Is it expected to be? Does that preclude us from bringing up those uncomfortable “taboo” topics? It should not.
The majority of parents I interviewed when writing the book and those I interact with who are considering the book say that they are concerned and fearful that if they speak with their children about their children’s challenges, they were going to say or do the wrong thing because they are uninformed or misinformed, will hurt them because of expressing it the “wrong” way, put the thoughts in their mind because they haven’t thought about it before, and/or create an eating disorder for their children.
In my meetings with groups of parents that I have met, many expressed feelings of shame and embarrassment. They felt their children’s challenges signified a lack of their family’s ability to maintain self-discipline, which in turn was a direct reflection on them and their lack of control. For those parents who were challenged particularly with impulsiveness, perfectionism, or rigidity much of the time, when their children engaged in overeating, it triggered feelings of frustration, disappointment, and fear. Derived from our personal challenges, we very often set rules in our minds about how we see the world and how we perceive ourselves and family members “ought” to be and act.
The reality is if your child struggles with exercise and eating behaviors, they know it. Their mirror broadcasts it, they may be being teased at school or by their siblings at home, and/or they are observing enough images on television and in magazines about how they are “supposed” to look. By choosing not to say something, you are making a deliberate choice to ignore the obvious, which can result in your child feeling isolated and alone with their frustration and pain. They may therefore be left with their own misconceptions and a set of misjudgments about the way you and others perceive them.
With open communication, feelings will come up when you want to talk to your child about their health and other issues. These topics may very well be uncomfortable for you for many reasons. Perhaps they were taboo in your own family growing up, you are not sure how to talk about them, and/or you don’t feel savvy enough to talk about the topic because you have been grappling with your own set of challenges.
Despite this, there still needs to be a commitment and willingness to talk about anything with your children, even though you may not necessarily like what they are saying or see it from their perspective. Just like you would talk to them if you noticed they were depressed, or have general dialogue about substance use/abuse, practicing safe sex, or internet safety, as parents it’s also our responsibility to address health issues — no matter what they are.
Would you think twice if you had a resource that could help your child with their diabetes, asthma or allergies? Probably not because you would consider it an ethical and moral responsibility to disseminate these helpful resources, especially to someone you love and care about. More importantly, this is not an issue they will just outgrow; it puts your child’s long-term health at risk. We have to accept that we sometimes have to talk about things that are uncomfortable, that naturally comes with the territory when we agree to take on a parenting role.
Remember, nothing is off limits. Your child needs to feel that there is safety in communicating with you at any time about anything. If they don’t bring it up to you, you are not off the hook. It is your responsibility to raise the issue with them—particularly if you sense that the topic is troubling or impacting them negatively in any way.
If you are willing, you will seek to learn how to effectively listen to, communicate with, and support your child in a loving way when it comes to seemingly uncomfortable topics. It is extremely important and the reason why I dedicated an entire chapter to communication skills in my book. We, as parents, are not expected to know it all. It’s extremely appropriate to seek guidance when you need the help.
I’m no longer that kid, I’m an adult. As uncomfortable as it may be and sometimes is, I open dialogue with my children and patients about everything and anything. It conveys the underlying message that every part of them is acceptable, okay and worthy. I think about how reassuring that would have been for me as a teen to have been able to engage in an open and compassionate dialogue about my challenges. I can’t overstate what that would have meant to me and what meaning it can and will hold for your child.