Food for Thought: A Parent’s Guide to Recognizing an Unhealthy Relationship with food in Teens

Written by Madeline Nash

Teen years are some of the most difficult times when it comes to a relationship with food. The pressure to look your best and present a perfect exterior are higher than ever. Social media plays a large role in teens comparing themselves to others and fixating on body image. This is where a teenager’s relationship with food comes into question. How often are they skipping meals, counting calories, or purging after a large meal to fit social media standards of beauty and attractiveness? There are many signs that your teen is struggling with their relationship with food, but these three major ones are easy to watch for.

1. Your teen is constantly denying hunger.

If you notice that each morning at breakfast or each night at dinner your teen says, “No thanks, I’m just not hungry.” or some variation of this for multiple days in a row, take a mental note. Be mindful of your teens’ schedule and ask yourself some simple questions. Did they just return from a practice of some kind? Is this an appropriate time for them to be hungry? Did they eat breakfast or lunch? If you answered, yes, yes, and no. There’s a very good chance your child is struggling with their relationship with food. Without accusation, ask your child how they are feeling and discuss the potential to talk to someone about these feelings.

2. Your teen avoids eating in social settings.

If you notice your teen refuses to eat in social settings, or eats very small amounts, take caution in pointing it out. This only causes your teen to become more anxious and embarrassed that people are now aware of their worst fear – people noticing what or how they eat. Instead, take a mental note, and later address the concern with your teen in private. Consider simple questions that leave room for explanation and understanding. “Hey, I noticed you didn’t eat much at dinner, are you feeling okay?” If your child responds with something related to sign 1; you can segue into help for some concerns. If your child explains that they are feeling sick, offer remedy and comfort, and be mindful the next time eating in a social setting comes up.

3. Your teen is talking about food non-stop.

If you notice your teen is constantly talking about food whether it’s calorie related, fat content of food, how much they or someone else has eaten, kindly ask your teen about their concerns. This can look like many different conversations. “You’ve pointed out the amount of calories in your yogurt, are you concerned? Maybe we can talk to someone about what calories really are.” Sometimes, our teens don’t understand the labels on food, they only understand what Instagram has told them. Education can be life-changing. “I noticed you picked up on how many snacks your brother has eaten today, if you’re worried he’ll spoil his dinner, I’ve got it covered.” Shifting the conversation to something they do not need to be worried about, may help them recognize a conversation around food does not have to be negative.

The most important piece in these conversations is coming from a place of curiosity. If we aren’t afraid of the conversation around food, our teens won’t be either. When they need help, they’ll recognize it and be able to ask for it. It’s important to recognize how we talk about food when our children and teens are around because the first voice in their head is yours.