Q: Help, I’ve caught my daughter binge eating a couple of times in the middle of the night and today I found two empty peanut butter jars and lots of candy bar wrappers under her bed. I’m pretty sure it’s related to her being depressed and upset ever since we moved this last year (she’s in 7th grade) and now that the divorce is final, she doesn’t see her Dad as much anymore. I’m tense a lot because my job doesn’t cover the bills and her Dad is inconsistent with his “help”. She’s put on about 20 pounds this year and I think the extra weight is making her feel even worse at the new school. What can I do? Whenever I bring up the topic she says she gets mad and doesn’t want to talk about it.
Kathie Jacobson: It certainly sounds like there have been many changes in your life and in your daughter’s life in the past year or so. A move, financial changes, a divorce and a new school are a whole bunch of major stressors. No wonder you are both feeling the pressure.
I hope you have a trusted friend or family member with whom you can talk about the financial pressure and your feelings about your ex’s inconsistent financial support. You need support, but these are not appropriate conversations to have with your daughter. She needs your support without having to support you.
Have you looked to her school for a counselor or kind teacher who could be supportive of your daughter and who could lend her an ear? Often school personnel are knowledgeable of the social groupings at school and can try to help a “new kid” get integrated. They might also be able to help her get into some after school activities that may both keep her busy enough to not eat out of boredom and help her with social connections
If you have decent insurance, a therapist for your daughter could be helpful too. If you go this route, do not mention the weight issue to your daughter, just tell her you’d like her to try seeing a counselor since you know this whole situation is stressful for her and she might benefit from some extra support. If she balks, do what you need to in order to get her there a few times. Then leave it up to the therapist to prove her worth to your daughter.
Make an effort to educate yourself about emotional eating, so you understand what may be driving your daughter to overeat, and be better able to help her.
Now to the nitty gritty of the food…
My first suggestion is for you to do everything you can to keep binge-friendly foods out of the house (cookies, candy, ice cream, maybe even peanut butter). It’s had to binge on things that aren’t there and if she binges on grapes and bananas it will do much less harm.
If you must buy some binge-type foods, bury them in the cupboard or freezer without advertising them to your daughter, just to make it a little tougher for her to find binge stuff in the middle of the night.
Without mentioning the binges, tell your daughter that you sometimes have trouble with waking in the night when you are worried or unhappy, and she may have this problem too. Tell her that if she wakes and wants to talk, she is welcome to wake you up to do so. (If this happens too often you may need to renegotiate, but the offer may help even if she never acts on it.)
Optimize your kitchen for healthy snacking, and model good eating yourself. Prepare meals with fruits, vegetables, and lean meats. Have fresh or low-sugared canned fruit around for snacks. Keep finger-ready carrots, celery sticks, baby cucumbers, cherry tomatoes around with a low fat dip. Often if a healthy snack is convenient it will be chosen, but if it has to be prepared, forget it. So make the healthy choices as convenient as the unhealthy one. Stock your fridge with skim milk and ice water and eliminate the soda and sugary fruit drinks. If they aren’t in the fridge, but a pitcher of cold water is, chances are she will drink the cold water.
Now that spring is coming try to figure out an activity you can do with your daughter. Is there a decent place to walk or ride bikes so you can get outside in the evening? What kind of music does she like? Can you blast it and have a dance party? Exercise in the evening may help her sleep through the night.
Look for summer park activities where you daughter will be active and be around peers so she has the chance to develop a social network, and so she won’t be sitting around all summer. Her school may be a good resource for this information.
Finally, schedule a physical for your daughter and give the doc a head’s up (ahead of time) that your daughter is gaining weight and you’d like him to have a conversation about it with her. Most doctors are responsive and have experience with these conversations with kids. And most kids listen to their doctors better than their Moms.
Photo by Todd Baker.
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