My daughter is twelve years old and I'm worried about her eating. She's cut out a lot of her old favorite foods and lately avoids eating with the family whenever she can. I can tell that she's very worried when she does eat with us, and she gets angry that we "make" her. Maybe I'm overly anxious, but things just don't seem right.
Joy Jacobs, JD, PhD responds:
Parents often have a “sixth sense” about how their kids are doing. Your intuition is telling you that something is amiss with your daughter. As a parent, you must trust your intuition. If in doubt, reflect on all the times your hunches about your child have been right on in the past. The behavior changes you are describing have raised your suspicions and it sounds like the early attempts you have made to address your concerns have only increased your sense that something is amiss with your daughter’s eating.
I recommend that you gather more information before you decide exactly how to address the changes in your daughter’s eating behavior. Cutting out favorite foods is often the first step on a “diet” and an initial step toward an eating disordered path for many kids. Have you discussed your concerns with your daughter? If not, try to approach her in a supportive, concerned way…such as, “I have noticed that you no longer enjoy foods that you used to love so much (and give examples here). What has changed?” I recommend avoiding using words like “eating disorder” or “disordered eating, ” as these words could feel threatening to your daughter and make it more difficult to gain the understanding you are looking for. Just use this conversation to express your caring and desire to understand your daughter better and move forward with that in mind.
As an initial step, I would recommend family meals as much as is possible. Make presence at family meals non-negotiable. As you may know, family meals are associated with a variety of positive outcomes in children’s behavior, including improved grades, family communication, and reduced rates of delinquency and mental illness. Eating in secret is a classic eating disorder symptom and attempted intervention on this level may also give you a better understanding of the nature of your daughter’s problem and the reasons behind it. You could approach the subject with your daughter in the following way, “We miss you at family meals. It is important for us to eat together as a family. This is a special time when we can talk about our day and things that are essential to keeping our family running smoothly. You are an important member of our family and we need you to join us.” You may face some initial resistance but I encourage you to persist. This process may bring forth much of the information that you have been searching for.
If this process does uncover an eating problem in your daughter, you will be your daughter’s greatest asset in the recovery process. Let us know how it goes.