January 8, 2013

Teen Talk: Mother's problem of eating in front of others affects family

DEAR KELLY: My mom has this crazy thing about not liking people to see her eat.

DEAR KELLY: My mom has this crazy thing about not liking people to see her eat.

It sounds weird, but it's true. She has always thought she was fat (she isn't), so she hates for people to see her eating. She doesn't mind if our family sees her eat; it's just other people.

Recently, a group of my friends and our moms all went shopping in San Francisco for the day. I knew my mom was so hungry by dinner, but she said she wasn't hungry at all, and didn't eat anything.

Everyone said things like, "That's why you're so skinny."

As soon as we dropped everyone off, she went right home and ate.

I realized that was why she didn't let me have anyone sleep over afterward – she was hungry and wanted to eat and couldn't do it if I had someone with me.

It drives me crazy and I think she has a problem. Whenever she and my dad go out to dinner with another couple, she eats a full meal before so she can just have a small salad or bowl of soup and not eat a meal like everyone else. It's weird!

People always tell me that my mom eats so little or that she has such a little appetite. We can never go out to eat as a family.

Maybe you can explain why my mom doesn't like to eat in front of people. Is it just me or is it weird and she should see a shrink of some kind to get help for this?

My dad says "This is just how your mom is," and shrugs it off like it's nothing, but my sister and I think it's odd.

My mom is obsessed with always being skinny and whenever people say how good she looks, she always tells them that she has another 10 pounds to go. She never just says, "Thank you."

When people tell me and my sister that we look cute or skinny, my mom always says something like, "Yeah, they have cute bodies for their age, but if they only went to the gym they could look even better" or "Just wait until they get older and have to work for it. We'll see how they look then."

It's so embarrassing when she says things like that. We hate it. What can we, as teenagers, do to help our mom? Is this a problem or are we overreacting?

– It's Complicated

DEAR IT'S COMPLICATED: It is complicated and hard to understand. Your mom appears to have social anxiety around food. While it is not a normal pattern of thinking, it is also not uncommon for people to struggle like your mom does with eating around others.

Your father seems somewhat immunized to her behavior and has learned to overlook her anxiety. You and your sister are correct in feeling that it is not normal and your mom could benefit from getting help from a mental health professional.

One thing I reinforce all the time in this column is how we can't control other people or their choices. That is true even in this situation, but your mother's choices concern me because they also affect you and your sister.

Her phobia of eating in front of other people can have a direct effect on both of you. Your mother's fears can easily be passed on to you if she isn't more aware of what she is doing and doesn't see the potential damage she is creating by not addressing her anxieties around food and weight.

Your mom seems to also struggle with body-image issues. Her inability to take a compliment is a problem, but she is transferring it to you by pointing out that you need to go to the gym to look better or by not allowing you to feel good about yourself when someone says something nice about you.

If she wants to feel bad about herself or her body, then that is her issue to work through, but her comments to you and your sister are harmful and destructive to your self-esteem.

Go talk with your dad again. Ask him to help you find a counselor who works with teenagers. Tell him that your mom's constant comments about food and weight are hard for you to hear and you're being negatively affected by your mom's anxieties.

Let him know you are frustrated by her choices and that they're affecting the whole family. Share that you need to talk with a professional to work through your feelings around the whole situation.

If he doesn't listen or won't get you help, go talk with your school counselor or a trusted older relative. Perhaps coming from someone with professional wisdom or someone they respect, your parents will listen and get you the support you need to be sure you develop healthy eating habits and a positive self body image.

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