Q. I am currently feeling like a failure as a parent. My 12 year old daughter is smart, well behaved, does well in school. However, she sneaks food. In this area, we fight and tempers flare creating a hostile environment at home. She loves junk food like cookies and chips. We have a policy at home where the kids get to choose 2 junk items from the pantry as snacks after school. It works in most part, but she ends up taking 1-2 extra things to her room. I am worried about the impact of constant junking on her teeth & overall health. She just cannot stop herself from eating. I cannot constantly monitor her and increasing the ‘allowed’ unhealthy stuff on a daily basis is not an option.
A. My advice is to focus most on the facts that your daughter is smart, well-behaved, and competent. It’s all-too natural for our fears to get in the way of trusting who our children are. She is not yet thinking about what is good for her health and well-being and what she should be doing to enrich herself and her body. That’s not her job—yet. Did you think about this when you were 12? The fact that she does well in school indicates that she does care about herself and her future, but when it comes to what goes in her mouth, she craves sugar and junk. Your job is to manage her nutrition, which of course is causing your stress.
Think about it this way—she will do what she wants if she can. Like many children, she has a sweet tooth. She doesn’t have to be hungry to be tempted by available snacks. She doesn’t care about tooth decay or what junk food is doing to her body. She just knows what she wants. She knows you are limiting it, and so she has to sneak to get what she wants. Her job is not to want less.
My advice is do not have junk food in the house. There are many nutritious snacks that are organic and less processed. Limiting and policing any unwilling person’s eating will lead to hoarding and sneaking. What you have in the house is your job. And it’s your job to be in charge of her health. That’s why children live with parents for 18+ years.
Have a bin filled with fruits they like and less processed, more organic treats. Maple syrup and honey are still sugar but are less processed and contain some beneficial ingredients. Nut butters on fruit or crackers can make good snack foods. Look up healthy alternatives and, with your kids, make a batch of homemade snack food each week. Perhaps once a week have a special treat for everyone.
Yes, this means more work for you, and possibly more money. Junk food is cheap and easy. But remember, her nutrition is your job until she decides to take it on when she’s older. If junk food is in the house that means it is in her face tempting her. She is not going to resist it.
Your current policy works against her rather than with her. Expecting her to limit herself and curb her desire is unrealistic. My suggestion is to let her know that it is your job not hers to make sure she eats healthy food to take care of her developing body. This actually lifts the blame and burden of expectations off her shoulders. She is simply doing what comes naturally.
Let her know that you have been fighting her with the expectation that she should be restricting herself, and you realize that you were wrong and you are sorry. You have to hand her this gift before you tell her you will be doing your job. When she feels more understood and less blamed, then you can tell her that from now on you are going to buy healthier snacks—food you are okay with. And then remove your limitations. Tell her she can eat whatever she wants. Let her work out with her sibs who gets what.
When you give her this trust, she will test it again and again. It will require patience on your part to give it enough time to see it level out. She will be angry for a while. She may yell at you for starving her. Be ready for her pushback so you can hear it and say, “I get it. You don’t like the change.” Try and limit your response to few words and resist taking her anger personally. When you expect it, it will be easier to remain non-reactive. Keep your focus on all the things she is so capable of. Maintain confidence that you are doing what is best, and she will get used to it over time.