Care and Feeding

My Daughter Is a Junk Food Sneaker

Around here, treats rarely last the night.

Child's hand grabbing a cookie.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by letterberry/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter (8 years old) sneaks food constantly. Though we generally have healthy food around the house, occasionally we’ll have some treats (think Girl Scout Cookies, sweets sent by Grandma, or leftovers from a meal out). She’ll wake up at 5 a.m. and treat herself to a junk breakfast, leaving very little for the rest of us. I am concerned by this behavior. It’s been ongoing for two years. At first we tried to ignore it, hoping it was just a phase; we then tried talking openly with her about honesty and sneaking around, but that didn’t work either. She’s physically healthy and definitely eats enough at meals. She just seems to have an insatiable sweet tooth. Having struggled with some disordered eating as a teen, I am intimately aware that creating too many emotions around food can do more harm than good. But I don’t want my daughter sneaking/stealing/hiding food. How do I extinguish this behavior in a healthy, productive way that doesn’t lead to an eating disorder later down the line?

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—Fraught Food in Fremont

Dear Fraught,

Before you buy locks for the cupboards, you could experiment with changing your family’s relationship to treats. What about making cookie and sweets less of a tantalizing forbidden fruit by having them more often, as part of everyday life? It doesn’t surprise me that much that your daughter is sneaking food when some foods are considered “junk” and are off-limits most of the time. What if there was no junk, just food? What if your daughter learned to trust her body to tell her when and what to eat, rather than to follow rules and feel guilty?

As a culture, we’re thoroughly in the thrall of industries that simultaneously market food as a panacea and dieting as something akin to a secular religion. No one is immune to the messages we’ve been receiving from these industries since we ourselves were kids. Since you’ve already worked on your own relationship with food, you’re already aware of this, I know! But that work is a lifelong commitment, and sometimes figuring out how to feed other people brings up issues we thought we’d already finished going through for ourselves.

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Fortunately, there are an increasing number of great resources on this subject. I love the podcasts Maintenance Phase and Food Psych, for starters—they introduced me to the concept of intuitive eating. I know that gradually, with your help, your daughter will grow up to love her body and enjoy the pleasure and happiness food can give her, without any feelings of sneakiness or dishonesty. But you have to be willing to join her on that journey, too.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Last year, my 14-year-old daughter “Mara” came out as trans. We were immediately affirming, accepting, and celebratory—we took her to doctors to explore gender-affirming care, followed her lead on how to share the news with extended family, and have gotten her looped in with a support group for trans teens in our area. We feel lucky that things are going well so far. Our entire family (nuclear and extended) is extremely liberal. As a result, Mara has been (rightfully!) treated really well during this tumultuous time. However, our older daughter “Jen” has started to chafe at the attention and celebration lauded on Mara. Jen has been having a hard year already—virtual schooling, loss of high school senior year milestones, and the general upheaval of teen years. Jen notices all the attention around Mara’s transition and has been making comments about how if she came out, she’d be getting attention too. Many of our family’s conversations revolve around supporting Mara as she navigates various milestones in her transition. We are also very sensitive to Mara’s emotional ups and downs and—if I’m being honest—tend to have less patience for Jen’s.

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I’m worried I’m creating a dynamic of resentful competition between my two daughters. I’ve tried to prioritize Jen with one-on-one time (with both my husband and me separately). I’ve also tried to over-celebrate many of her milestones and accomplishments. But honestly, Mara’s transition does take up a lot of airtime and emotional space in our home. Do you have any advice on how we can continue to support Mara while also making Jen feel loved and celebrated? I wish there were infinite love and attention to go around, but that’s feeling harder and harder these days, with virtual school, work from home, and just pandemic malaise in general. Please help.

—Stretched Thin

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Dear Stretched Thin,

Siblings are going to compete for your time and attention and love, no matter how hard you try to make things equal. And it sounds like you’re trying really, really hard. What would it look like if you cut yourself some slack? It seems like this has been a year of emotional upheaval and change, and you’re dealing with it the best you can. From Jen’s perspective, she is about to leave the nest, and there’s an aspect of this drama that has to do with that, apart from every other variable (the pandemic, Mara’s gender identity). To ease the pain of separating from you, Jen has to pull away from you. It’s her job right now to resent you and blame you and make you feel like you must be doing something wrong. It hurts! But it’s just part of raising a child, one of the many difficult stages we pass through together. You’ve weathered her other tough phases and will continue to do so.

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Instead of looking for solutions, try to do whatever you can to feel at peace with how strained and hard things are right now. Take care of yourself in whatever way you can, and try to connect with both your daughters from a place of genuine interest and care. Don’t “over-celebrate” to compensate for whatever might be lacking. Instead, ask for help from whoever can give it so that you can take time and space for yourself to process everything that’s happened, in your family and in the world. Return to caring for them with renewed appreciation for the people they are, and let your love and appreciation for both of them shine through.

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• If you missed Sunday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m married and have a wonderful stepdaughter who is about to turn 12. We joined our households about 2.5 years ago. I’ve long suspected she has some kind of executive functioning/other disorder. She struggles to manage basic responsibilities like brushing her teeth, doing simple chores, managing school, etc. She’s sweet as pie and is happy to do what she’s asked to. But despite consequences, she has not learned the basic routines after several years. I’ve encouraged my husband to have her evaluated, but these requests get lost in conversations with her biological mom. Unfortunately this leaves me stuck. She’s bleached our brand-new towels, used CLR to try to clean a carpet spill, throws away tons of perfectly good food because she’s suddenly decided not to eat it. I feel like I am living in the movie Groundhog Day because no matter what I do, she cannot be trusted to learn and retain simple information. She’s a great kid otherwise, and we have a lot of fun together. What do I do to protect my house?

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—Worried and Losing My Mind

Dear Worried,

I see where you’re coming from: Having a preteen chaos agent around, especially during quarantine, must feel very stressful. But instead of asking what you can do to protect your house, maybe you can flip your thinking and ask yourself what you can do to support this kid? Suffering from executive dysfunction, or whatever it is that’s holding her back, can’t be fun for her. She would probably feel a lot better if she could handle her schoolwork and remember to brush her teeth. She needs help, and while it sounds like the other adults in her life aren’t in a hurry to come to her aid, you might have better luck convincing them if you started the conversation by making it clear you’re advocating for her, not only yourself.

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Your husband and his ex-wife need to get on board with a plan to see a pediatric psychologist. A formal evaluation takes time, but there may be interventions that could help her in the meantime. Her school might also have resources that could help you and her navigate this process. None of this is a quick fix, so in the meantime, you do need to take steps to childproof at least some aspects of your domestic routine. It seems like she can’t handle any unsupervised cleanup or really much unsupervised time at all, which is tough. But it’s past time for you all to come to terms with that reality, rather than the fantasy of how you’d like to be able to parent this kid. Part of the process of getting her help is accepting her for who she is, not imagining that she’s going to transform completely. You’ve all got a lot of work ahead, and I very much hope your husband can find it within himself to make that work a high priority, for everyone’s sake.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter (2.5) hates having her hair washed. This only really became a problem sometime after her first birthday; prior to that there were no issues. Whenever it’s time for a bath, she will ask if we have to wash her hair, and if we don’t, bath time is a generally enjoyable time. (She does object to being washed during bath time, if that matters, but not as strongly as she does when her hair is involved.) I have tried going through the motions and explaining everything outside of the tub during non-bath-time (“and then we pour a little water over your head like this, wheeeee! And then we rub in some shampoo, just like this … isn’t this nice?) and she goes along with it. I’ve tried letting her “wash” my own hair by letting her pour water over my head and putting shampoo in it (I’m outside of the tub, clothed); I’ve tried letting her bathe and wash her toys first so she sees the process there, but nothing helps. When it’s time to wash HER hair, she starts screaming and crying, batting my hands away, trying to climb out of the tub, and now this last time my husband had to come in and wash and rinse her hair while I held her horizontally over the tub. I feel like every time we wash her hair, it gets progressively more traumatizing. We’re starting to go weeks between washings. What do I do here? I need to wash her hair!

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—Kid, Your Hair Smells

Dear KYHS,

There are lots of different reasons your daughter might hate having her hair washed, but she’s 2.5, so she’s having a hard time articulating them. The solution will hinge on your discovering what exactly about the sensation of having her hair washed is unpleasant to her. Some kids really hate having their head tipped back—if you put yourself in their shoes, you can start to understand why this might feel scary and disorienting. You could try the “mermaid” approach, where you encourage your daughter to lie down in the bath to wet her head, then come back up to be sudsed. After that, she is in charge of lying back down and rubbing the shampoo out of her own hair with no intervention from you. This is pretty advanced stuff, but some toddlers can handle it!

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You could also try a visor that keeps soap out of her eyes, if having soap and water touch her face is her main concern (or just a washcloth held over her eyes, if you’re loath to buy an additional piece of plastic for this purpose). Other things to try: reading a picture book about someone who goes from hating hair-washing to enjoying it (there are lots), or bringing a mirror to the tub so that she can see what’s happening. Generally, the more aspects of the process you can let her do for herself, the better—she’ll be an incompetent hair-washer at best, but she’ll start to feel some control over the whole process, and maybe this will lead to greater acceptance of washing in general.

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—Emily

More Advice From Slate

I’ve been overweight most of my life. During my childhood and teen years I was always just 20 to 30 pounds overweight but when I got into college my weight spiraled out of control. I graduated from college morbidly obese, weighing over 300 pounds. I continued to gain and, at my heaviest, was 420 pounds. I finally hit rock bottom when I realized I had nothing in my life but food. I started to eat right and exercise. I got results and was encouraged by family and friends to get bariatric surgery. The surgery was a tremendous help and I now weigh well within normal limits. My problem is that all my life I have told myself that once I lost weight things would get better for me. Not just better, but amazing. None of that happened. I’m kind of waiting around for my new life to begin and can’t figure out how to jump start my dreams into reality. Can you help?

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