My son wants an eat­ing plan and I am hor­ri­fied

The Irish Times - - Lifefriday - Tr­ish Mur­phy Tr­ish Mur­phy is a psy­chother­a­pist. Email tel­lmeaboutit@ir­ishtimes.com for ad­vice. We re­gret that per­sonal cor­re­spon­dence can­not be en­tered into.

The first step is to talk to your son and eval­u­ate where he is with this anx­i­ety

Prob­lem

My son (15) ap­proached me this morn­ing and asked if I could de­vise an eat­ing plan for him. I told him that I had, fam­ily meals are cooked and eaten at the usual times. But in­side me rose a feel­ing of hor­ror. I have watched my kids grow up with what I see as dis­torted mes­sages about food be­ing pushed at them from crèche days right through to col­lege days. Naively, I thought I could coun­ter­act this with mod­el­ling a healthy eat­ing style at home where food was nu­tri­tious and joy­ful.

To­day, hear­ing this from my son tells me I have lost and that this tsunami of junk information about “healthy eat­ing” has not by­passed my chil­dren and I now have to work with the re­sul­tant dis­torted thinking about food, or worse still an eat­ing-dis­or­dered son soon to be young adult. There is much more anx­i­ety in my son’s self-image and I am de­s­pair­ing of him be­com­ing self-con­scious and anx­i­ety rid­den.

He is not some­one who talks about him­self eas­ily and my fear is that this fo­cus on his ap­pear­ance will not be eas­ily chal­lenged and could grow into a much deeper prob­lem. All the meals in our house are cooked fresh and we do not eat take­aways or pre-pre­pared food un­less we are on hol­i­days. My hus­band and I both cook and we love our food, so I am very thrown by my son’s ques­tion.

Ad­vice

You have con­nected with a se­ri­ous prob­lem in our world – the ques­tion of what food means to us and how we think about it. In your house, it seems that there has been a won­der­ful at­ti­tude to food and many peo­ple would be en­vi­ous of your fam­ily’s ca­pac­ity to pre­pare fresh food every day. How­ever, it seems that you have had a huge re­ac­tion to your son’s re­quest for an eat­ing plan and I won­der what this ef­fect has on you and on him.

Per­haps you are do­ing bat­tle with the world we live in and are try­ing to chal­lenge the so­cial mes­sages that abound about ap­pear­ances and nutri­tion. This is a worth­while cause and one that might take a life­time of chal­leng­ing but right now you have in­flu­ence over some­one who is ask­ing for help.

Your son has a huge re­spect for your knowl­edge and aware­ness about food and has asked you for as­sis­tance. He may al­ready have picked up your frus­tra­tion and anger at the source of this ques­tion and you need to be aware of this so that his in­ter­est does not go un­der­ground or that he or­gan­ises an eat­ing plan that has no one over­see­ing it.

The im­por­tant re­sponse here is to start at wher­ever he is at. This may be an in­ter­est in de­vel­op­ing his body for sports or it may point to an anx­i­ety about his ap­pear­ance. Ei­ther way, this is where you need to start the con­ver­sa­tion and take his lead on what the is­sues are. If he wants to de­velop his body for a spe­cific aim, then it might be a good idea for you to re­search some­one pro­fes­sional to help guide him in this.

On the other hand, if you have any sense that this is an anx­i­ety is­sue, then a dif­fer­ent re­sponse is needed. It can be a very easy thing to turn to the body to have a feel­ing of con­trol when anx­i­ety be­comes over­whelm­ing. This can man­i­fest in many ways and the ear­lier this is de­tected the bet­ter the pos­si­ble out­comes. The cause of the anx­i­ety is of­ten fear of not fit­ting in or fears of not be­ing good enough in some way.

Teenage years are of­ten fraught with the pres­sure of be­ing ac­cepted and this can es­ca­late as they can­not es­cape it, eg with so­cial me­dia an ever present part of their lives.

The first step is to talk to your son and eval­u­ate where he is with this anx­i­ety. If you are con­cerned, it is a good idea to sug­gest to him that he talk to some­one about this. Talk­ing may help him to un­der­stand what is hap­pen­ing and open up av­enues of ac­tion for him. There may be a coun­sel­lor in his school that he could en­gage with or he might pre­fer some­one at a big­ger re­move. It might be a good idea to look at Body­why’s web­site to help him un­der­stand what is hap­pen­ing – they have a young per­son’s on-line sup­port called “youth­con­nect” and this might be a good start­ing place for your son.

In or­der for your son to be con­fi­dent and able to ad­dress what­ever is­sues he has in his life, he will ben­e­fit from a mother who is calm, grounded and hope­ful. This is some­thing you can im­me­di­ately of­fer.

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