We interviewed Andrea Wachter, LMFT, author of Getting Over Overeating for Teens. The book is written for teens that struggle with overeating, binge eating and body image. Although teenagers are the primary market, the book is also valuable for parents who want to support their teenagers with eating issues.
Andrea approaches healthy eating from the perspective of having a “Stable Table.” This analogy is based on a metaphorical table with four legs: feelings, thoughts, body and filling up.
We really like the idea of not focusing on eating alone. While eating is the external behavior of binge-based eating disorders, it is only part of the equation. The stable table helps parents think of the deeper issues that may be driving binges.
Here are the four main points presented in the book:
Many parents inadvertently teach their kids that there are acceptable and unacceptable emotions. Specifically, they are happy when their children are happy, but censor sad, mad and scared feelings. When we only allow space for “acceptable” feelings, our children do not learn to process the gamut of natural feelings in a healthy way.
Andrea says that overeaters will either feel their feelings, or eat in an attempt to stuff their feelings down (and then have feelings about that!). If you help your child stabilize their “table” by learning to process feelings without excess food, he or she is more likely to find the natural weight range that is healthiest for them.
Most overeaters have what Andrea refers to as a loud “unkind mind.” We need to help our children understand that we all have the propensity to engage in conversation with our “unkind mind.” Unkind thoughts lead us to painful feelings, which, in turn, are often processed by overeating.
When we don’t know how to manage our unkind thoughts about ourselves, we actually listen to them and believe them. These unkind thoughts lead to painful feelings and overeating. Learning to challenge, quiet or ignore unkind thoughts will help kids to reduce them and over time, lead to a healthier relationship with food and body issues as well as life in general.
Many parents consciously or unconsciously seek ways to support their child in losing weight or staying at a low weight. This usually means focusing on just one leg of the table: the body. When people focus just on eating and exercise, they fail to create the stability required to balance the child’s deeper needs. An over-emphasis on the body with little or no focus on the other three areas is what leads to diet failure and an endless cycle of pain and suffering over bad body thoughts.
In addition to helping kids have a healthy relationship with their emotions and thoughts, it’s also important to teach them (and role model) a healthy, non-diet, loving relationship with food and movement. This means learning how to tune into natural hunger and fullness cues, listening to your bodies wisdom when making food choices (as opposed to dieting or supersizing), and seeking a balance between enjoyable movement and rest.
Finally, it is important to learn how to “fill up without feeling down.” We are not bodies alone, and we seek self-actualization through our activities and passions. Our children need our support to find ways to connect with others, belong to stable loving groups, and seek personal fulfillment through healthy, fulfilling activities.
Many teens mistakenly believe that if they can improve their bodies, they will improve their lives. Parents can help their children nurture the deepest parts of themselves so that their kids will recognize that food is fuel for the body, not a balm for the soul. Parents can teach their kids how to truly fill up emotionally in ways that won’t leave them feeling physically stuffed and ashamed.
Andrea Wachter, LMFT is the author of three books: Getting Over Overeating for Teens; Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Breaking the “I Feel Fat” Spell; and The Don’t Diet Live-It! Workbook. She maintains a private practice in Northern California where she works with people of all ages who struggle with eating disorders, substance abuse, depression, anxiety, grief and relationships. Her website is here.