My daughter’s secret eating is a minefield. What can I do?
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The teen years are times when many healthy childhood habits can be abandoned and children experiment with eating unhealthily and making unhealthy choices. Photograph: iStock
Question: Our daughter, aged 13, moved to secondary school last year. She gets money to get public transport and for the canteen. Now I am finding hidden chocolate wrappers in her room. She wants to give up sports and is not making healthy eating choices, for example, she will eat a minimal breakfast (slice of white toast) or avoid it altogether. We ensure that dinner and snacks are balanced but she is beginning to put on some extra weight.
Naturally this is a minefield topic to raise with a teenage girl and we have always tried to approach it positively. Rather than talking about weight we talk about the importance of healthy choices, referring to the need to avoid long-term health problems such as diabetes (an aunt on her Dad’s side has this problem). We also try to do healthy family activities at weekends such as walking together.
I am concerned about the secret eating and potential lying. We had found wrappers before in her room but she had said it was when she had sleepovers and we believed her but told her that the most important thing was honesty and trust. How should we handle this issue now it has happened again? All advice gratefully received.
Answer: As parents it is important that you do what you can to encourage children to develop healthy lifestyle habits. This can become more challenging as children become teenagers when they begin to make their own decisions and may rebel against their parents’ values. However, it is important that you hang in there as a parent and work hard at being a positive influence. The teen years are times when many healthy childhood habits can be abandoned and children experiment with eating unhealthily and making unhealthy choices. In addition, there can be rapid fall off in the involvement in sports particularly for teenage girls (perhaps due to how sports are perceived in their peer group).
As you say in your question, raising these issues with teenagers requires a very tactful delicate approach and you are right that you should not focus on the fact that your daughter is putting on weight. Teenagers are self-conscious enough about their appearance and their bodies and you don’t want to add to their anxiety.
Innocent and well-intentioned comments from their parents can be perceived as deep criticisms so you have to be careful. In addition, you have to be cautious about judging weight gain in a 13-year-old girl, as during these early teen years there can be a normal growth spurt of putting on several pounds in one year. Girls, in particular, gain weight first as a layer of fat over their whole body as they develop their feminine curves. You are right therefore to focus your conversation with your daughter on health and fitness and emphasise the importance of staying healthy, arguing for the physical, mental and social benefits this will bring her.
Dealing with the secret eating
If the problem happens again, return to this conversation and explore solutions with her – “What’s going on for you that you are eating in your room like this and what can we do to sort it out?” Being sympathetic, putting it back to her to sort things out and holding her to account, are all strategies that can help.
Encouraging a healthy lifestyle
Dr John Sharry is a social worker and psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus programmes. For details of courses on Promoting Positive Self-esteem and Parenting Young Children in Dublin, Kilkenny and Cork, see solutiontalk.ie for details