Talking about food and body issues can seem loaded. Many parents simply don’t know what to say so they avoid saying anything. Other parents feel uncomfortable with the subject and want to change their kids’ minds about food and body issues as quickly as possible. This can leave the child feel unconnected and unheard.
So what is the solution? How can we talk to a child who is struggling with food and body issues? The answer is active listening, a well-known communication technique used around the world to connect people.
Definition: Active Listening
“Active listening is a technique of careful listening and observation of non-verbal cues, with feedback in the form of accurate paraphrasing, that is used in counseling, training, and solving disputes or conflicts. Active Listening requires the listener to pay attention, understand, respond and remember what is being said in the context of intonation, timing, and non-verbal cues (body language).” Wikipedia
Here are the main ways I think about active listening when it comes to food and body issues:
- Listen carefully for the feelings underneath the words: is your child asserting independence and autonomy? Seeking validation? Wanting attention? These are all good reasons for our kids to reach out to us!
- Avoid giving advice or opinions: be very careful about jumping in with advice or your opinion. This will often shut down the conversation, lead to defensiveness, or encourage fruitless circular arguments.
- Reflect what was said: the first main technique is to simply reflect back what they said. Just pick up a few critical words and repeat them back to your child. This makes them feel heard and usually gets them talking more openly.
- Reframe what was said: sometimes your child gets in an obsessive loop about their appearance or food. In these cases it’s more helpful to reframe what you heard as a feeling rather than a fact. This often helps you connect on a deeper, more meaningful level.
This sounds simple, but it’s not easy for most of us. It takes practice, but it is a skill anyone can learn.
Talk less & listen more
Most kids tell me they wish their parents gave less advice and listened more.
Most parents tell me they can’t stop themselves from giving advice. It feels compulsive and automatic. They feel as if that’s their only option for responding to a child.
But when we give advice, we end rather than open conversations. Giving advice is the opposite of active listening. Advice-giving shuts down conversations, while active listening opens them up. Advice-giving can make our kids pull away from us or anxiously reach for us when they should be solving their own problems. But active listening helps our kids get to know themselves better while simultaneously making them feel more connected to us.
The next time your child shares something with you, practice not telling them what to think, feel, or do about it. Instead, use active listening to help them expand on what they’ve said and get to know their thinking.
Too often we rush in with an opinion and/or suggestion for how our kids should feel, think, or behave because we are worried that our child is not capable of making good choices. When parents give advice, they are trying to stop their kids from making bad choices. But the only way to learn how to make good choices is to make bad choices and face the consequences. Parents should not stand in the way of bad choices unless the consequences are truly dangerous or hurtful.
Advice most often leads to a conversation shut-down, defensiveness, or useless debate. Active listening opens the conversation and helps our kids figure out who they are, what they like, and what they believe.
This is how we teach our kids to be autonomous adults. And it’s also how we gain a deeper connection with our kids.
How to talk about food and body issues
Here are some examples of how parents can respond to inflammatory statements about food and body issues with active listening. These responses will help open up conversations rather than shut them down or turn them into lengthy debates about the validity of each person’s perspective.
When they say: I hate Brussels sprouts
Advice: You might want to say something like “But they’re so good for you and they’re delicious!” But this approach will make them either dig their heels in or ignore their own preferences. For example, a child might decide that your pushback on food is an area in which they can seek individuation and autonomy from you. In this way, they may be less willing to even try the food or consider liking it in the future because now it’s a power struggle rather than just food.
Active Listening: Instead, try reflecting what they said back to them: “You don’t like Brussels sprouts.” This is a simple statement of reflection. You recognize they are stating a food preference, and it’s not your job to editorialize or change it. The point is that food preferences are personal. It’s not an area where we can help our child by debating the value or deliciousness of a certain food. That usually backfires. So just reflect their preference back to them. They may choose to tell you more, which allows them to explore the preference on their terms (not yours).
When they say: I hate that I weigh this much!
Advice: You might feel as if you have to counteract their statement with something like “Your weight is fine! You’re perfect! Stop thinking about it!” But this approach will likely start a debate about how much they weigh, what they look like, and the value of different body weights. This is not a good place to have a conversation. It will lead to circular arguments and fruitless debates.
Active Listening: Instead, try redirecting the conversation to something useful: feelings. You can say something like “It sounds like you’re feeling bad right now.” In our culture, weight has become a way to judge someone’s worth, and kids can feel as if their appearance is who they are. We want to counteract this tendency by talking about who they are, not what they look like or weigh. Keep the focus on feelings, not fat, and you’ll have a much more fruitful conversation.
When they say: I skipped lunch today
Advice: You might want to jump in to share your disappointment and fear about their behavior. This makes sense but is unhelpful. If you say something like “Oh no! Why? Did you forget? You know you need to eat!” your child is likely to either shut down or get defensive. Any advice about eating can feel judgmental, and that’s not a good place to be when it comes to food. Of course, you want your child to eat well, but try to avoid any sense of coercion or judgment when it comes to eating.
Active Listening: Instead, try reflecting on what they said back to them. You can just say “You skipped lunch.” It sounds very simple, but this makes them feel heard and they are more likely to now tell you why they skipped lunch. It may sound like an excuse to you, but the important thing is not to correct their thinking but to help them explore why they make choices so they can make different ones next time. It’s best if we provide a non-judgmental environment where they choose to explore their choices rather than a punitive or critical environment where they stop sharing with us or don’t develop their own decision-making skills.
When they say: Nothing looks good on me!
Advice: You may be tempted to say something like “You are beautiful and perfect and look great in everything!” The trouble with this approach is that it will start a debate about their body’s “flaws” and their appearance. This is not a helpful road to go down. It can lead to circular arguments and unhelpful debates. The more you try to convince a body-conscious child about their beauty, the more they will push back, and this pushback can become entrenched and drive their misguided beliefs even deeper into their psyche.
Active Listening: Instead, try saying something like “It sounds like you’re feeling like you don’t have any good options.” This opens the conversation to how they are feeling rather than their body. One of the things we need to help our kids develop is the ability to recognize that feelings are not facts. We don’t do this by telling them they look good. We do this by showing them that we’re interested in their inner world more than their outer appearance. When you use active listening, you’re not telling them how to feel, but you are helping them tell you how they feel by reframing what they’ve said and asking open-ended questions.
Advanced challenge:”I feel fat”
“I feel fat” is a common conversation starter when a child is distressed, unhappy, and feeling overwhelmed with emotion. If you respond to the content of the comment, you miss the opportunity to address the purpose of the comment, which is to connect with you and get support. You may also get stuck in a negative and fruitless conversational loop and accidentally perpetuate weight stigma.
Start by validating your child’s feelings. Your child needs to feel as if you heard and understand what they said. But instead of focusing on the word “fat,” or their body, identify a feeling that you can validate, like:
- It sounds like you’re feeling overwhelmed.
- I can hear how worried you are right now.
- It can be stressful to live in a body in our society.
It takes maturity to recognize that bad body thoughts are usually about feelings, not external appearance or weight. Parents can help kids shift from blaming their appearance to feeling their feelings. Don’t give up – this will take time and patience. But it will also help your child gain body peace!
Next, during a neutral time when your child is not complaining about their body, talk to them about the harm caused by using “fat” as a stand-in for negative feelings.
Here’s what I say:
“In our culture, it’s common to say “I feel fat.” But this is said as a negative, and it means we believe that fat is bad. And that’s not something I’m willing to accept in our house. It’s called weight stigma and is a form of discrimination against fat people. So when you use that phrase, I’m going to ask you to talk about your feelings instead of fat.”
NOTE: If your child is in a larger body and chooses to reclaim the word “fat” as a neutral way to define their body, that’s great!
That’s very different from using the word “fat” as a stand-in for a feeling. And it’s not appropriate for a thin person to use the word “fat” as a way to complain about their body.
The nuance here is that the word deserves respect, and we need to pay attention to the intention and tone.
Active listening for food and body talk
The goal of using active listening for food and body talk is to help your child open up to fruitful conversation. The downside of giving advice about food and body issues is that you can either shut down the conversation or expand it in unhelpful ways by getting into circular arguments.
When a child is obsessed with food and body issues, ongoing debates about food and body are not only fruitless, but they can create the opposite outcome that you’re striving for. For example, an ongoing debate about whether a person is fat or not can merely entrench the child’s idea that feeling fat is a valid point of debate. It’s much better to help your child tap into true feelings (fat is not a feeling!) and find out what’s going on beneath the circular argument they’re engaging in.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.
She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.