Q: My daughter has been sneaking and hiding food in her room. She’s trying to lose weight and it’s so frustrating to see her sabotaging herself like this. We’ve tried everything to get her to stop eating junk food including locking the cabinets where any junk food might be. She still finds a way to get into the cabinets and is even stealing her sibling’s food! When I bring it up to her, we just fight about it. I don’t want to be the food police, but I also know she’s hurting her body consuming all this junk. How do I help her?
A: Hi Jenna, thanks for your question. This is a tough question and you might not be happy about my answer, but hear me out!
Hiding and sneaking food is an indicator that she KNOWS she’s engaging in harmful behavior (otherwise she wouldn’t feel the need to hide it). Rules around food can cause us to feel a lot of guilt and shame and it sounds to me like your daughter is feeling plenty of that.
I know your rules around food have likely been very well-meaning and I’m sure you made them in an effort to help. However, food rules in the home that make one child feel alienated while other children or family members have more access to “desirable” food will almost always backfire. These rules can often make the child feel guilt, shame, isolated, anxious and depressed. Children want to feel accepted, like they belong, and creating rules that splinter them from the rest of the family can produce unwanted consequences both for the parents and the child.
Even if you believe you are creating these rules to protect her, they are likely having the opposite effect.
It is best not to have food in the house that only certain members of the family can eat. Even if you have one child really struggling to maintain a healthy weight and one child who can eat anything they want and not gain a pound, I suggest making food available in the house that is healthy for ALL family members.
I use the reminder, “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”.
Just because you have a child who can eat lots of processed junk food without any visible effect on their weight or shape doesn’t mean it’s good for that child.
The food in your home should reflect a healthy home for all family members.
I suggest talking to your family about being a “healthy household” for all.
Avoid saying you are a healthy family “because your daughter needs it.” Instead, create a united front and discuss health as a top priority for everyone in your family.
Take the locks off the cupboards and make the healthy food choices available to all.
This will help your daughter feel more included in the family unit, rather than feeling like she’s a “problem.”
When she can relax and stop stressing about all of the things she’s not allowed to have, some of her compulsive behavior may regulate naturally.