Private Consultation: My Child’s ‘Full Meter’ Is Broken

mama-to-mamaRecently, we got a great question from the worried mother of an 8-year-old who seems to be a little obsessed with food. Her mom, Lilian, reports that Amy often keeps eating well past the point of fullness. And although Lilian serves healthy, well balanced meals and keeps sweets and junk food to a minimum, her daughter has now topped 100 lbs. Amy never seems to have had enough, no matter how much she eats, unlike her leaner sister who’s satisfied with smaller portions. Lilian’s worried, and we can see why. So we decided to put our heads together and tackle this one as a team.

But we thought it might be interesting, and helpful, if we gave all our readers the chance to listen in as we tried to figure out what might be going on and how we thought Lilian could best address the problem. Her question brings up a lot of different issues related to eating and there may be something here that speaks to a food or feeding problem that you are dealing with, too.

What follows then, is our behind the scenes consultation and the take-away message and advice we came up with for Lilian and Amy.

Rachel: Lilian seems really concerned about her girls’ health, and that’s a great thing. Childhood nutrition problems are epidemic in our fast-food culture, and it seems like she’s working hard to make sure they get balanced meals. Most kids have an internal sense of when to stop eating, but once in awhile that ‘full meter’ doesn’t work as it should.

When that happens the first priority is to check in with the pediatrician and make sure she’s aware of the issue and on top of it. Occasionally, there are medical conditions that can mess with the body’s natural appetite control, and those need to be ruled out. By going through the complete physical exam process, the pediatrician can get a better idea of what’s going on and start to work on a plan for the next step.

Ellen: That is definitely the first thing that needs to be looked at. Another thing that caught my attention was that both Lilian’s daughters are adopted. Since kids sometimes struggle with challenging feelings about their birth parents as they approach adolescence, I wonder if that could also be playing a part. I wonder how much they know about the circumstances of their adoptions or whether they’ve had opportunities to ask questions and talk about it very much.

Plus, we both know how food can be used to comfort ourselves or relieve boredom or stress and how quickly it can turn into a power struggle between parents and kids. Lilian is right to be concerned about not damaging her daughter’s self esteem and this whole food issue can be really loaded. So, I’m thinking it might be wise to check in with a family counselor to see whether there are some emotional issues at work here, too.

Rachel: For sure! Sometimes just getting such a highly-charged issue out into the open is the biggest step. I suspect Amy and her sister are acutely aware of how worried their mom is, but talking freely about the food thing may have become a big no-no. And it may very well be affecting the girls’ relationship too, since one seems to be doing okay while the other is struggling.

I also wonder if the focus on food portions and, I suspect, over-burdened family schedules may be causing them to lose sight of the basics, like making sure everyone’s getting plenty of active exercise, a solid 8 hours of sleep, and – my favorite bugaboo – hydration with good ol’ H2O. This is simple stuff, but it can feel overwhelming when we’re caught up in crazy day-to-day life. It can really help to have an objective outsider normalize it and suggest a plan.

Ellen: That’s right. What’s great though is that Amy is still so young and her mom seems ready and willing to try and get things back on track for her. That’s more than half the battle right there. Given that, the probability of success for them is high. This may actually turn out to be a golden opportunity to address a number of things that if left unchecked, could spell trouble down the line.

Rachel: Agreed.

Hey Lilian!
Thanks again for your question. Together we’ve thought about it and have come up with some suggestions to get you started on helping Amy.

1) First, call your pediatrician and arrange to talk privately with her about your concerns, out of earshot of your daughter. You can discuss what you’ve tried so far and be really honest about everything that’s going on– without having to worry about alarming or embarrassing Amy. Then schedule a thorough physical exam.

2) Consider asking your pediatrician or someone you trust for a referral to a family counselor to make sure that there are no significant emotional issues contributing to Amy’s overeating. Although seeing a counselor might feel embarrassing at first, you’ll be surprised at how useful and supportive it can be, not only for Amy, but for you too!

3) Review your family’s basic health habits. Is everyone exercising/sleeping/drinking enough water and in a routine sort of way? It helps to keep the spotlight on health rather than food.

4) Do your best to stay positive and try to take some of the heat off this subject with Amy. Most likely she knows that her overeating upsets you and too much focus on it can actually make it worse. Play games together, get her outside riding her bike or playing on the jungle gym every day for at least 30 minutes, read books together and basically start to incorporate more activities that don’t include food into her day.

Good luck, hang in, and let us know how things turn out.
The Mamas

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Ellen and Rachel are two old friends and “expert” mamas—one a pediatrician and one a family therapist—with fifty years of parenting experience between them.

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