Parents and carers should be mindful of saying certain phrases about food to their children and young people over the festive period, a family psychotherapist has warned.
Fiona Yassin, founder and clinical director of The Wave Clinic, said there are a number of phrases that parents and carers use at the Christmas dinner table that promote harmful eating mindsets and can cause young people to have unnecessary concerns about food.
Yassin said: “This is not about beating yourself up for what you’ve said to your child in the past, but it is important to acknowledge the impact of your words. There are certain phrases that can negatively impact behaviour, confidence, and identity as children grow into adolescence. Adjusting what you say will help to prevent your child from developing negative feelings about food, including anxiety, guilt, and shame.”
6 phrases about food commonly used at Christmas that could be harmful to young people
- “There are children starving around the world; eat all your food.” This is a nonsensical phrase that’s been passed down through generations. Parents often use it to try to teach children to be grateful, but in reality, it can leave young people feeling quite confused and angry. The message parents are actually giving off here is ‘if you don’t eat all your food, you’re causing starvation and malnutrition for children around the world’, which is completely untrue; one does not equate to the other. It’s really important that parents don’t put that type of pressure and responsibility on their child’s shoulders.
- “I’ll eat this now and work it off in the gym in January.” Phrases like this reinforce the message to children that anything pleasurable must come with pain, and that is not something we want our children to internalise. December tends to be a month in which we talk about excess, and January is about restriction. As parents, we want to avoid talking about the normality of enjoyment being followed by restrictive measures.
- “I’m so bad for having another helping of…” It’s really important for parents to remember that dieting or restrictive eating is often a learned behaviour. So when we punish ourselves for overeating, our children and the young people in our lives are more likely to do the same. Saying you feel bad or guilty for eating something combines what you eat with who you are as a person and implies there is shame in having eaten that food.
- “You can have pudding if you eat all the vegetables on your plate.” It’s really important we give children a balanced perspective on food and do not pit different food groups against each other. Using food as a reward may lead your child to think that healthy food is boring and that sweet treats are a useful way to manage emotions. It’s no surprise that many adults come to resent healthy eating and turn to sweet or salty foods and not carrot sticks when they feel low.
- “You’re such a picky eater.” The “picky eater” phrase is one that’s commonly used at Christmas gatherings, especially when family and friends come together. Telling your child, or telling someone else in front of your child, that they are a picky eater is identity-shaping talk. The word picky is loaded with negative connotations, and labelling your child not only risks them limiting how they see themselves, but it could also trigger your child to adopt that identity.
- “I’ve had a coffee and a quick snack, so I don’t need lunch.” Coffee, or any other drink, is not a substitution for food. Having a coffee when you’re Christmas shopping doesn’t mean that you should deprive yourself of the next meal. Children look up to their parents and mimic many of their words and actions subconsciously, and this phrase promotes the idea that it’s right to skip meals.
What impact do toxic phrases about food have on young people?
Yassin said: “Children don’t have the ability to understand abstract phrases and conversations about food, many of which reinforce the message that people are judged by the size of their bodies and what they do – or do not – put into them.
“We tend to make decisions based on how we think we might be judged at that moment. For example, if we go for a second helping of Christmas pudding, we might think that other people will judge us as glutinous, lazy, or greedy – the messaging that comes from the social perception of having a larger body. Our course of action might then be to restrict or limit what we eat, or to punish ourselves after eating it.
“The messages we hear from an early age, up until about 30, play a really important part in how we view ourselves and others. It’s really important that parents use appropriate and clear messaging and do not leave children guessing what they mean, because quite often children will guess incorrectly and fill in the gaps themselves.”
The problem with the word “treat”
“One problematic word that tends to be used a lot around food at Christmas is ‘treat’. The problem with using the word ‘treat’ is that it suggests food is symbolic of some kind of reward that has to be earned,” says Yassin.
Yassin continues: “Children might get a few edible ‘treats’ in a Christmas stocking, only to have these ‘treats’ taken away from them and hidden in the cupboard. The message the child hears is that these treats come with a rulebook that dictates how many, and when they can be eaten.
“Instead of giving more and having to restrict foods, my suggestion is to only give what your family feels comfortable with in the first place. For example, if it’s not okay in your family for children to have more than two chocolates a day, don’t give them 20 in a stocking. It’s essential that you feel comfortable and confident, that your parenting is not being challenged and compromised, and the child feels there is consistency.”