Care and Feeding

My Daughter Has a Horribly Unhealthy Relationship With Food

An open refrigerator.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Albert_Karimov/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,

I have a concern that is very delicate, and I don’t know how to address it with my daughter—or if I should address it. My daughter spent kindergarten through fifth grade struggling with her weight. She was always underweight, and she refused to eat a lot because she didn’t want to look like me. (I’m overweight, but I generally eat healthy food and exercise daily, which she sees.) She saw nutritionists and specialists, but it was a difficult road for my daughter, and she didn’t want to eat more. In elementary school, another student told her she was fat and she believed this child. When we moved, she appeared more comfortable and was eating better, though her weight was still in the 10th percentile. Like many people, she was deeply affected by COVID. She became more depressed and began using food for consolation. She has put on over 30 pounds, but given her prior low weight, she is now at a healthy weight for her height. She loves yoga, but only does it a few times a week and will only go for a walk or ride bikes with friends, not me. I’m worried she’s going to continue to gain weight, and then she will suddenly stop eating again, but I’m also worried if I say something, she will stop eating again. Is there a good way to approach the subject without upsetting her to the point that she stops eating again? I keep snacks in the house, but I also have lots of fruit, milk, juice, and there is rarely soda in the house. Is there a sensitive way to address the amount of junk she is eating? I could stop buying the snacks, but I’m afraid if I don’t discuss this with her, she will just decide to stop eating. Or should I just not address this at all?

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—Worried and Wondering

Dear Worried and Wondering,

Your daughter is healthy and growing and she enjoys moving her body, all of which is much more important than what she eats or the number on the scale. I understand that you’re concerned that gaining more weight will trigger a relapse of her disordered eating, but you won’t prevent that outcome by having a talk with her about the “junk” she’s eating or changing the food you buy. If anything, you’ll make it more likely that she’ll start restricting her food intake again.

The most profound and far-reaching change you could make for the sake of your daughter’s health is to begin to heal your own relationship with food and your body. Lest you think I’m criticizing you, I think this is true for all parents! You describe yourself as “overweight” and say that your daughter’s undereating stems from her fear of looking like you. I think you and your daughter have both been bombarded with damaging messages about what constitutes health, and you are ready to take steps to get out of the diet culture mindset once and for all. I don’t know what kinds of specialists and nutritionists your daughter has seen in the past, but it would be wonderful if you could see a different one now who specializes in intuitive eating and/or Health at Every Size. If you can manage it, I think you and your daughter would both benefit from sessions with a counselor who focuses on removing the stigma from food and eating and helps you create a more sustainable lifelong relationship to the skin you’re in.  This might be painful and effortful at first, but in the long run it has the potential to make everything food and weight-related much easier and less scary for you and for your daughter.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

A couple weeks ago I was walking home from the park with my 3½-year-old when we saw a group of 8–10 elementary-aged boys at the top of a hill. As we came closer, two of them started fighting. The larger one (who was white) dragged the smaller Black or Hispanic boy to his knees and put him in a chokehold at least twice. The smaller boy wasn’t limp, and he didn’t seem to be struggling. The other boys just watched. My son couldn’t tell what was going on and observed that the kids on the hill were having a “party.” I am so ashamed that I did nothing. In the moment I froze, and I was too cowardly to get involved, worrying that the boys either wouldn’t listen to me or that they would turn on me and my son (completely irrational, I know). But now I am racked with guilt for not speaking up, or asking the smaller boy if he was alright. I feel horrified that that poor little boy might have seen an adult just walk by and do nothing to help him. What should I do with these feelings? And, more importantly, how can I raise my son to stand up for others when I was too cowardly to do so when it counted?

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—Cowardly Mom

Dear CM,

I don’t think guilt is getting you anywhere useful. You wish you had stepped in, but there’s nothing you can do now to change what happened. But you have some useful information: In the future, you know you would like to be better equipped to intervene when you see someone bullied or harassed. The organization ihollaback.org has free bystander intervention trainings that can be completed virtually. A basic strategy that I like to use when someone is being sexually harassed on the subway is to create a distraction by loudly asking for directions or dropping my bag. In your situation, that might have looked like interrupting the fight to ask the boys if they’d seen a (nonexistent) toy your son lost at the park. I find this kind of nonconfrontational move to be safer for everyone—if you step in and say, “Hey, stop hurting him,” the bully could be embarrassed and take it out on the other kid after you leave. Hopefully, knowing you have the tools to step in the next time you see something like this happening will make you feel better about what happened last time.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m trying to figure out how to solve a problem I should have solved years ago. I have two children, ages 8 and 10, with my ex-husband, “Alex.” I divorced him six years ago when his unwillingness to carry any household labor reached a breaking point for me. During the divorce I found out he’d been cheating on me with “Zoe,” and they married shortly after the papers were finalized. Since we share 50/50 custody, I didn’t think the marriage would last. But Zoe stepped up for him, and has basically been my co-parent for the past six years. For obvious reasons, I wasn’t thrilled about her in the beginning, but she has been a clear, firm, and respectful co-parent, and she manages the kids’ dad so that he pays attention to birthdays, soccer games, etc. After six years of parenting him, her stepkids, and now a toddler of her own, they’re undergoing a contentious divorce. She expressed to me that she will only be in contact with our ex about her child’s custody and that she does not have the bandwidth to be involved in her stepkids’ lives anymore. I’m looking at getting the kids into therapy because they seem to be taking this divorce (and the loss of Zoe) much harder than my divorce, and I’m angry that she stepped out of their lives, but a big part of me feels guilty for relying on her to make custody work for all those years. Meanwhile, my ex is completely dropping the ball as a co-parent on stuff like both kids’ birthdays, and they both regularly refuse to go to his place during his assigned weeks, taking the school bus and showing up at mine while I’m at work. How do I help get my kids back on track?

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—Guilty Mom

Dear Guilty Mom,

Get those kids into therapy and modify your custody agreement! Depending on how agreeable your ex is to the idea of reducing his time with the kids, the latter might be as simple as agreeing on a new arrangement, putting it in writing, and getting it approved by a judge. If your ex would rather do it the hard way, your lawyer can petition for a new agreement based on the change in his marital status.

Once you’re on track to getting a new routine securely established, you can focus on addressing the long-term emotional fallout for your kids of abruptly losing a parental figure in their lives. This really sucks for everyone concerned, and I hope that you can give yourself time and space to just let it be sad and sucky for a while.  Once Zoe is past the immediate aftermath of her divorce from your ex, maybe she’ll reconsider her assessment of her own bandwidth as far as your kids are concerned. After all, they’re her kid’s half siblings. It’s very understandable that you’re angry at her right now, but see if you can keep the door open to a future relationship with her, for the kids’ sake.

—Emily

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