Summer vacation is ending. People are coming back from traveling; kids are starting school. What makes summer vacation special? My childhood memories include: painting on the back porch, watermelon and roasted corn on the cob, laying on the beach (back in the day when SPF meant Super Powerful Fantastic tan). Coming back from vacation is like the “Monday” of the Dieting world: I’ll start again on Monday. I’ll get back on track on Monday. I have to go back to work on Monday, Mondays suck.
We just got back from vacation. It is interesting being a parent navigating food treat-land with a kid on vacation (and in life). In my private practice, I see many adult clients struggling with disordered eating and body image distress. But their childhood food experiences differ. Some only got food-treats on vacation, some were never allowed food-treats, some only ever ate sugar cereal, whether at home or on vacation. However, in eating disorder recovery, as in life, It’s not about the food. Let me re-phrase: it’s partially about the food. It’s more about the context of the food than the content. In other words, if you were always forced to clean your plate, were never allowed to eat treats, were never served a vegetable, or were forced to eat all your vegetables even if you had to choke to get them down, that is obviously going to influence your experience regarding food and eating as an adult! However, even more important than the content (whether it be Vegetables or Cap’n Crunch), is the message about food and listening to your body. What were you told about the context of food, eating and your body? Were you allowed to listen to and trust your body and your hunger cues? Were you able to have some choice about what, when and how much you ate? Were you listened to? Were you therefore able to learn to listen to yourself?
Intuitive vs. Controlled Eating
As someone who struggled to re-learn intuitive eating in my adulthood and is a bit anxious as a parent that my child get the right nutrition, it is a serious spiritual practice to keep my “eat your vegetables” and “do NOT give him any more sugar, Papa” tendencies in check. However, I know in my very Being, in the-Part-of-Me-That-Knows, that intuitive eating works. And I know that the more I can foster as well as not inhibit that innate knowing in my child, the more of a protective factor I create around future disordered eating (depression, anxiety, body and self loathing…)
Birch et al. (2001) outlined particular “controlling feeding practices” that parents tend to do with children:
*Pressure to eat, as a means to increase the amount of foods a child consumes.
*Restricting access to certain foods, as a means to decrease the amount of “unhealthy” foods a child consumes.
*Monitoring food intake, as a means to track the amount of “unhealthy” foods a child consumes.
Controlling feeding practices, though often done with the best of intentions by parents, often lead to interrupting a child’s food selection by either increasing or decreasing the desire for the “controlled” food item and disrupting the internal compass for hunger and satiety. (Batsell, Brown, Ansfield, & Paschall, 2002; Birch & Fisher 1998; Fisher & Birch 1999: Galloway, Farrow, & Martz, 2009: Joyce & Zimmer-Gembeck, 2009 )
So. Back to Summer vacation. We were at a lodge with a coffeeshop this past week that had every possible kind of croissant you could imagine: spinach and cheese, sausage and bacon, apple, marmalade, chocolate, nutella. My little one heard chocolate (even though I offered it as last choice hoping another would stand out and sound appealing…spinach? There’s always hope) and pounced: Chocolate! So the second day we were there, still Chocolate! On the third day, he chose something else. Direct quote:
“I’m done with that Mama.”
He chose a banana, ate it, and moved on. He listened to his body, his cues and preferences, and he had enough of the chocolate. My husband ate the croissant. I don’t know why, but I continue to be astounded at how just not interfering with the process of trusting one’s body is so profound. Bless Evelyn Tribole, Elyses Resch (Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works,1995), and Rosanna Franklin (You are what your mother eats: maternal intuitive eating and perceptions of child’s eating, Dissertation Defense, Alliant University, 2016) for articulating what the body, psyche, and emotions know as well as providing the research to prove it.
Here are some guidelines for intuitive eating:
- Relying on internal cues for hunger and satiety
- Eat for physiological rather than emotional reasons
- Have no dietary restrictions/unconditional permission to eat
- Practice body size acceptance
Your child did NOT make that art. I’m sorry, but no preschooler much less toddler I know makes crafts with teeny tiny tiny cotton balls stuck in exactly the right places so they are recognizable “snow angels,” or perfectly cut construction paper flowers wrapped with a pipe-cleaner to make a “bouquet.” YOU made that! Admit it..
You wanted it to look good. You wanted something not to be a mess. You wanted to have a feeling of control in a haze of process-not-product day-to-day moments that feel like they never end. You just wanted one tiny space without a mess of glue, paint, glitter, poop or smeared dinner on it. I understand. I do. More on this later.* However, making that craft look good is for you, not them. Here’s what’s good for them.
3 tips for making a creative, skill building activities for your child under 5:
- Have fun getting materials around the house and just make a space for creativity: cotton balls, cereal, feathers, play dough, material for gluing, construction paper, beads (if your child is not into swallowing small objects). Choose a space that is ok to get messy.
- Be engaged with the process with your child. Parallel play beside them. They will want to engage in creative activities if you are engaging! And you making something of your own will prevent your overdeveloped-adult-Superego from directing (aka shaming) your child how to make something the “right” way.
- If you are going to comment, comment on the process “Oh you are using lots of blue there…” or “It looks like you are enjoying smooshing the yarn into the glue…” or “Ooh! Tell me about it! Is there a story?” Kids are naturally creative and right-brained. They also naturally want to connect with their caregivers don’t turn this natural desire into needing to perform or please. It’s ok if the sky is purple for them right now or the pile of yarn is “a beach.” Believe me. Those are not the kids I see later in my office when they are adults struggling with depression and anxiety. The ones I see are the ones who needed to do things “right” to please someone. In the process, they had to abandon what was most essential to their psychological and emotional development: their own creativity, identity, and self.
I actually had a really good time making an almost recognizable picture with my preschooler today. A sun, rainbow, and trees! And skill-building small manipulatives with coloring and then pasting the Cheerios! My preschooler created a “treasure chest” with a “beach towel for the boat to land.”
When I noticed part of me thinking “that doesn’t look like a beach towel” and “I could help you make that treasure chest look so much better” I paused, and said to that Pinterest-Mom-with-the-perfect-blog part of myself:
*“Thank you for sharing, but it’s not your towel and it’s not your treasure chest. Would you like to make your own? Here are some materials…”
For those of you who are old(er 🙂 ), you may remember a television show titled “Fantasy island.” In it, there was a fictional character Mr. Roarke who ran an island that visitors flew into to fulfill their personal wishes. A mentor of mine calls this place in your mind “the island.” In this magical place, all of your “If____, then___’s” are accomplished, and you feel relief from whatever your particular form of suffering is. Some common versions of “fantasy island” type wishes include:
“If I lose weight, then_____”
“If I am out of debt, then______”
“If I earn (fill in amount of money), then______
“If I am in the right job/career/livelihood, then________”
The Alcoholic version:
“If I find exactly the right way to stay relaxed and socially confidant without blacking out, getting a hangover, or having any other negative consequences, then______”
The New Mom version:
“If I find the right formula for getting my baby to sleep and eat exactly right, have lost all the baby weight, and am not comparing myself to any other mothers, then_____________”
The Eating Disorder version:
“If I don’t eat any ‘bad’ foods, my stomach looks this way, my arms looks this way, my thighs look this way, then____________”
The Romantic Relationship version
“If I am in a relationship (in a married relationship, could change my partner, am no longer in a relationship) then ___________”
Note the irony of the last one. See how the mind creates suffering? As Oscar Wilde famously said:
There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.
You can fill in your personal versions “Ifs” and “thens.” However, the “thens” are often harder to fill in, because they are usually more intangible, like “be happy” or “stop feeling anxious or not enough.” Apparently, even in the fantasy island tv series, Mr. Roarke attempted to teach the guests life lessons through assisting them in seeing errors in their thinking or living in their fantasies.
The Thin Ideal
Carolyn Costin, a leader in eating disorder treatment who recovered herself calls these illusions the thin ideal. The thin ideal goes something like this: of if I were thin, I would be (happy/accepted/worthy/not have uncomfortable feelings…) Many of my clients recovering from disordered eating or body image distress know, intellectually, these beliefs about body image to be not true. They know what they are really looking for is not in there. What they are seeking in the desire to be thin doesn’t provide what they are actually looking for. They know “being thin” is not really going to give them freedom from ever having feelings of anxiety or grief or anger. They know being thin is not really going to give them meaningful relationships. They know that being thin is not really going to give them confidence, contentment, or a sense of purpose in their life. However, this part of the mind gets attached to its beliefs and stories. And when one is challenged, it comes up with new scenarios of “if, then.”
When I was never-thin-enough in my eating disorder 17 years ago, I was unhappy. When I finished my Master’s degree, supposedly “accomplishing” worthiness, I felt disappointed. And when I finished my doctorate, mostly what I felt was tired! After having a baby, I did feel content (amidst the exhaustion). However, none of these experiences provided me with an ongoing and easily accessible “You have now arrived” stamp of approval, feeling of contentment, or belonging in life.
I joke with my mentor about this island not actually being an island, but a mountain. Once I have climbed the mountain, reached the top, I will have “arrived.” Another illusion. One of my favorite authors, Pema Chodron writes:
In the process of discovering our true nature,
the journey goes down, not up.
It’s as if the mountain pointed toward the
center of the earth instead of reaching into the sky.
Instead of transcending the suffering of all creatures,
we move toward the turbulence and doubt.
We jump into it. We slide into it. We tiptoe into it.
We move toward it however we can.
We explore the reality and unpredictability
of insecurity and pain, and we try not to push it away.
If it takes years, if it takes lifetimes,
we will let it be as it is. At our own pace,
without speed or aggression,
we move down and down and down.
With us move millions of others,
our companions in awakening from fear.
At the bottom we discover water,
the healing water of compassion.
Right down there in the thick of things,
we discover the love that will not die.
It’s not about the island, it’s not about climbing anywhere, and it’s definitely not about going up a mountain. It’s about going down, right down into the thick of things, with your heart.
What provides the experience of “then” for me are:
Relationships with people who value the gifts I bring and with whom I value the gifts they bring
Being of Service helping others
Dancing or moving my body
Looking at things that scare me in a straightforward, nonavoidant way
I would love to say it IS about the product and there IS an endpoint! Here is where it is and here is how you get there! I have created a map! Just follow it and you will arrive at fantasy island! But the name kind of says it all, doesn’t it? This is not a fantasy. This is real in the trenches imperfect life, with all of its ups and downs every day throughout a nonlinear journey called your life. What provides the experience of “then” for you? I’d love to hear it!