How do we support our teens who are struggling while ensuring they are healthy but without adding to their internal pressure or making the situation worse? Use these tips by Sharon Eshmade, a counsellor, parenting coach, author, teacher, and mum-of-a-teen with behaviour and learning difficulties, to help you confidently navigate this challenging time and get the balance right.
1. Why is this an issue with teens?
The teen brain is wired to dissociate from their parents and connect to their peers. If their peer connections are fragile, teens conclude that there’s something wrong with them, which they must change to be more likeable. Even the most ‘popular’ teen can live with debilitating hidden vulnerability issues.
2. The mental health link
Teens instinctively feel that their true authentic self is unacceptable because they are wired to conform to mainstream and conventional expectations in their peer group. They believe that by being thinner they will be more tolerable and even admired by their peers. To cope, they suppress their pain and don’t ‘succumb‘ to their hunger.
3. Understand how eating disorders work
The more disconnected and lonelier a teen feels, the greater their desire is to have more control in their lives. Being emotionally numb, self-critical, and showing excessive and unreasonable levels of willpower makes them feel more in control and increasingly powerful. It is an addictive drug, gives them a high, and insidiously perpetuates the problem.
4. How we unintentionally make it worse:
Our teens believe we say that they are thin and beautiful because, as their parents, we must. They see us as fake and unreliable. This undermines their trust in our relationship with them, increases their need to be guarded with us, and fuels their feelings of isolation.
5. How we unintentionally make it worse:
Conflict at mealtimes and high anxiety levels about food, and our teen’s weight, undermine their self-esteem. Because we don’t appear to recognise and care for them in their suffering, they feel increasingly incapable of coping. They perceive, and focus on, us being the problem, so they lie and hide their behaviour, increasing their sense of abandonment.
6. How we unintentionally make it worse:
Is an individual more valuable in your family or society when they are perceived as thin, attractive, young, and beautiful? Does your family prize surface-level beauty? Is someone always on a diet? Are negative comments made about a certain food, someone’s weight, and beauty? Even the most subtle reaction in facial expression and body language is processed by our extremely observant teens. They ‘listen’ to what we do far more than what we say but they are always listening.
7. Solution 1 – Connect, connect, connect!
The more we attach, bond, and love our teens unconditionally, the more psychologically safe they feel. Try beginning sentences with, “I love you and I want the best for you…” or “You are so capable when you…” In feeling connected and balanced, our teens can risk relinquishing their control, while still being psychologically safe. They may not feel connected to their peers but one day this phase will be less intense and they will appreciate that we were always there for them.
8. Solution 2 – Where is their beauty?
We must accept that their obsession with beauty is not going to diminish even if we are dismissive. Instead, focus on inner beauty and the qualities your teen, and other individuals exhibits that you find genuinely attractive about them. Encourage family discussions about inner beauty and why individuals, such as Malala Yousafzai, are so outstandingly beautiful.
9. Solution 3 – Change your behaviour
Encourage the behaviour of slim individuals, who don’t weigh themselves, count calorie, or obsess about food. Instead, promote mindfulness, gentle exercise, such as yoga (is it just me, or do all yoga instructors appear to be balanced in their weight?), and being a balanced individual. Don’t try to feed your teen food that is high in fat, or sugar because these foods can trigger a spiralling, negative response. Communicate, educate, shop, and cook nourishing, nutrient-dense whole food, such as a kale and quinoa salad with mango.
10. Solution 4 – Focus on mental health
Be vulnerable and gentle in expressing your fears for your teen’s safety and well-being. A calm and genuine conversation where you explain how much you love them and want them to be safe may be met with frustration and eye-rolling, but your concern for their wellbeing will penetrate. You can also explain how you struggled and managed the stress as a teen. Your empathy may encourage your teen to accept and express their feelings more.
11. Solution 5 – Give them more control
Treat your teen as an adult (where they are going) but expect them to behave like a child (where they are). Value their input in family discussions and decisions, give them space to view their opinions, freedom in more choices, and encourage their autonomy. Encourage them to take appropriate risks and reward them by appreciating and encouraging their effort. The focus is on communicating just how capable you know they are. Please don’t rescue them! They need missteps in their life to grow and learn to ‘fail forward’.
12. Ask for help
Follow me, Sharon Eshmade on social media for tips and support. Request a coaching or counselling session by visiting my website, http://www.crashtestmummy.net, or email me at email@example.com.