ASK A MOM: Restrictive eating, talking to your teens, and improving sleep quality

WBTV's Molly Grantham tackles your parenting questions in this ongoing series
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Q: If we have any dessert type item in our house, my 9-year-old daughter goes straight for it first thing in the morning when no one is looking. She always shamefully fesses up to it because we’ve said that sweets are not a healthy or acceptable way to begin the day. Because she knows better but still indulges, I fear there are seeds of shame and/or compulsiveness being planted around food, which could be a recipe for future eating disorders. I’ve tried taking all the sweets out of the house, but worry that creates restriction and scarcity, which could result in the same problem. We never talk about weight (she’s very healthy in height-to-weight ratio), only food as nourishment and fuel, and the impact of sugar on the brain, immune system, teeth, etc. These kids are so bombarded with constant sugar outside of the house, I feel like I can’t let it be a free-for-all without compromising their health. What is the appropriate way to handle this?

A: What a good, and complicated, question. We all see the unrealistic messages about body image that bombard our kids. I asked two different health professionals their advice on your behalf.

The first, health educator Julianne Guzik (also a Charlotte mom of two), had this reaction:

“Stop overthinking this,” she says. “It is normal for a 9-year-old to want sweets and have a hard time resisting temptation. It doesn’t necessarily mean there are any underlying problems.”

But Guzik also acknowledges—and whoever asked this question should acknowledge—how society sends mixed messages around food. For example, cupcakes aren’t appropriate for breakfast, but donuts are?

“This mom is right to worry about placing strict restrictions,” Guzik says. “That’s great she voiced that concern. Strict restrictions can backfire. Calling too much attention to this, especially if there isn’t immediate concern about her daughter’s weight or health, could lead to more shame and restrictive eating behaviors. Yet, we know it shouldn’t be a free-for-all either. My advice? Focus on what IS an appropriate start to the day: eggs, yogurt, fruit, oatmeal, etc. If the daughter wants something sweet, try to at least have it alongside these more nutritious foods.”

Otherwise, Guzik says, let it go for now and keep an eye on her behaviors.

Next up, a longtime Charlotte pediatrician had this to say:

“The good news here is that as a parent, YOU are the most important influence on your child,” she says. “Continue to set a good example surrounding food choices by having plenty of healthy items in the house and making every effort to eat them together.”

She also agrees that food should be viewed as fuel to keep our bodies healthy and, like Guzik, total restriction of all sweets is a recipe for disaster.

“Check yourself when having normal conversation, too,” she says. “Refrain from comments about body type or size when talking about friends and celebrities—focus on what they do and who they are!”

This pediatrician did raise a concern over your daughter’s tearful confessions about sweets consumed in private, though.

“If this is a new behavior, I’d recommend a ‘light touch,'” she says. “Sympathize with her angst briefly, then move on. However, if it becomes habit, I’d suggest reaching out to your pediatrician. She can guide you to some of the wonderful dietitians and psychologists in our area who specialize in eating disorders. I have always found early intervention can help redirect children on a healthier path.”

Q: How do I get my teen to open up to me? Most days I have no idea if she’s happy or if everything’s OK at school. I just want to check in with her without being overbearing.—Keri

A: This should read, “Signed every parent, everywhere.”

Malissa T. Crawford is a licensed mental health clinician and owner of True Mental Wellness Counseling & Consulting who sees clients virtually in both North and South Carolina.

“Kudos to this mom for reaching out,” she says. “It’s hard to be a parent these days. We’re either considered to be doing too much (helicoptering) or not doing enough.”

She went on to say that teens want to be included in decisions that pertain to them.

“Most feel as if they have no control or voice over what goes on in their lives. Have a conversation with her. It doesn’t have to feel heavy, but tell her you want to be sure she’s okay and you’d like to set a standard check-in time, then schedule it. Whatever regular slot time works. Perhaps name the time as something like, ‘Mom and Me,’ ‘Girls only,’ ‘Two of us,’ etc. You get the idea. It can be daily or weekly. Make it a time for the two of you to include activities like eating favorite foods, sharing an activity she likes, whatever it is you decide works for the two of you.”

Crawford adds that creating a non-stressful, ongoing conversation—not just one talk when you’re concerned—will set a tradition to continue for decades.

Q: How much sleep does my teenager need? Seems like he’s always tired.—Tricia

A: The best answer to this question was in an article written and published in Canada. Teens are teens. Those in Ottawa aren’t that much different than those in Charlotte, so we’re going with this information.

“Sleep research suggests that a teenager needs between eight and 10 hours of sleep every night,” this headline on The Better Health Channel reads. “This is more than the amount a child or adult needs. Yet most adolescents only get about 6.5 to 7.5 hours sleep per night and some get less. Not getting enough sleep on a regular basis can lead to chronic sleep deprivation, which can have dramatic effects on a teenager’s life. Sleep deprivation can impact mental wellbeing, increase the risk of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and can affect academic performance at school.”

Some common reasons teens don’t get enough sleep? Hormonal time shift, hectic after-school schedules, and using too many screen-based devices around bedtime. In fact, the article says teens who put down their smartphones an hour before bed gain an extra 21 minutes of sleep a night. (That adds up to one hour and 45 minutes over the school week.)

Interestingly, these experts also blamed “social attitudes in the Western culture” for keeping our kids awake. We—in American and Canada—value keeping active more than we value sleep. Read more, here.

The effects of teenage sleep deprivation—getting less than eight to 10 hours a night—can include:

  • Concentration difficulties
  • Poor decision making
  • Lack of enthusiasm
  • Moodiness, aggression, depression
  • Slower physical reflexes
  • Reduced sporting and academic performances

The experts in this article also offer these tips for parents to improve their teen’s quality of sleep:

  • Allow your child to sleep in on weekends
  • Try not to argue about bedtime; instead “discuss” it
  • Encourage an early night every Sunday
  • Assess your teenager’s weekly schedule together and help trim activities if needed

…and these tips for teens:

  • First, choose a bedtime routine (have a bath, read, use meditation, gentle yoga, etc.)
  • Repeat the same bedtime routine every night for at least four weeks
  • This will “make your brain associate this routine with going to sleep”
  • Avoid screens for at least an hour before bedtime
  • Avoid coffee, tea, soft drinks, and energy drinks before bed
  • Keep your bedroom dark at night—light wakes up the brain
  • Set up a comfortable sleep environment
  • Stick to a regular wake-up time
  • Remember even 30 minutes of extra sleep each night on a regular basis makes a big difference

Thank you, guys, for such good questions this month. Now close your eyes, breathe deeply, and know we’re on the countdown to regimented school-year routines. Keep sending questions on the homepage of Charlotte Parent. Until next month… I’ll see you tonight at 5 p.m., 6 p.m., and 11 p.m.


MOLLY GRANTHAM is an anchor, author, and mom of three. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram, or catch her on WBTV News at 5 p.m., 6 p.m., and 11 p.m.