Body Kind Families FAQ
Butterfly Prevention has been delivering seminars to parents on the prevention and early intervention of body image and eating disorders, both online and face to face for many years.
Here is a compilation of Frequently Asked Questions from these sessions. If you have any eating or body image questions, that you would like help with, please contact Butterfly’s National Helpline.
A teen’s appetite can fluctuate a lot. Some days they will eat more, some days not much. Different occasions (holidays, celebrations etc.) also impact food behaviours and habits. There are many factors that may be contributing to a low appetite. Your teen may well be listening to their body and responding to their natural appetite cues.
Things that may help:
- Encourage your teen to identify some foods they like (including nutritious ones) and make those available.
- Ensure they’re drinking enough fluids and support adequate sleep
- For girls, help them to become aware of their menstrual cycle and to understand how their appetite and food preferences can change over the month.
- Changes in physical activity affect appetite, so encourage non-competitive movement every day which may increase appetite.
- Broaden awareness of appetite cues – it’s not just a grumbling tummy but can also include grumpiness, fatigue, nausea. Everyone experiences hunger, satiety and fullness differently, and the experience of these cues can change over time too.
Remain watchful as a low appetite, driven by a desire to control weight and shape, may be a red flag for an eating disorder.
This can be a typical preference of many teenagers. Due to puberty and development higher energy foods are necessary. If you have offered and provided nutritious foods over their life, it can be worrying and challenging to have less ‘control’ over what they are eating. It is also common to worry about whether our child’s diet is providing adequate nutrition, particularly during adolescence.
The time span needed for our body to receive the nutrients it needs is week to months. So, consider your teen’s food intake across a number of weeks, rather than daily.
Things that may help:
- Talking to your teen about respecting their body’s need for both fuel and nutrition to support growth and development – for their mind, their mood and also their physical health.
- Avoid banning or shaming certain foods. For some teens, this may make them want what they ‘can’t’ have, even more.
- Avoid over-emphasising ‘healthy’ foods as this can indirectly shame other foods or create judgement about foods/food groups. Instead encourage balanced eating.
- Avoid using weight gain or body shape change as a motivator to stop your teen from eating certain foods ‘i.e. you’ll put on weight if you keep eating like that’. This reinforces weight stigma and body ideals i.e. thin = better!
- Provide a wide range of tasty, satisfying and nutritious food at home.
- Encourage food curiosity by trying new foods, shopping or cooking together, or even watching food shows.
- If you are concerned that your child is not meeting their nutritional needs and it’s affecting their development and/or mental health seek professional guidance from a non-diet health professional or dietician, who has eating disorder experience, as they can assess whether nutritional needs are met.
It is concerning for parents to learn that their teen feels uncomfortable eating or has stopped eating their snacks or lunch while at school. This is something the Butterfly Education team are hearing more and more from school staff and also parents.
For teenagers, eating outside the home is influenced by social dynamics and the need to connect and fit in with their friends and peers. Eating during school hours is incredibly important for your teens, mood, learning ability and energy. It is also something that demonstrates body kindness.
Seeking to understand why and what is influencing your teens eating behaviours at school is key. For some teenagers, skipping meals is an early warning sign of disordered eating or an eating disorder, for others it may be simply a sign that they don’t want to feel embarrassed by eating at school, if others aren’t. It’s tricky and there is not a simple solution.
Things that may help:
- Encourage a hearty breakfast and also afternoon tea.
- Encourage your teen to baulk the peer pressure ‘You Do You’ so that they are encouraged to be kind and treat their body with respect, which includes fuelling it.
- Make a range of easy to eat, nutritious foods available for your teen to eat on the go.
- Talk to your teen’s school or flag with wellbeing staff, particularly if this is something that is occurring in friendship groups.
- If your teen is also displaying other concerning behaviours around eating and physical activity or if they are struggling with their mental health, seek professional support.
Many young people are making food choices based on ethical and environmental reasons. And this is OK. It is important to take time to learn more and be curious and non-judgmental and understand what is driving their choices.
If foods or food groups are removed from their diet it is important that these foods are suitably substituted or supplemented to ensure their body’s nutritional needs are met. If your teen is an athlete or involved in a high volume of physical activity and if their reasoning is ethical, it is important to seek nutrition advice from a qualified dietician to ensure their nutritional needs are met.
If your teen isn’t substituting their diet sufficiently (i.e. just removing foods and foods groups), and if the motivator for their choices is driven by weight loss or body shape change then this may be a sign that something more serious is developing.
Becoming vegetarian or veganism is a lifestyle choice. Eating disorders are not.
Wanting to improve health and making positive modifications to eating options is of course OK. The majority of teens can improve their health behaviours. However, becoming obsessed with being or eating healthy is problematic. It also can be incredibly limiting socially and can have an adverse effect on mental and physical health.
Health messaging is intense and commonly sourced on social media, with eating styles and trends, such as clean eating heavily endorsed across many platforms – often accompanied with health and fitness body ideals. Seek to understand what is motivating your teen and if they are becoming consumed or obsessed with ‘health’, if they are rigid and restrictive and if their eating behaviours are affecting them in other ways (low energy, withdrawal socially) this may be a sign of something more serious.
In short, no! Restrictive dieting or ‘fad diets’ are one of the most significant risk factors for the development of disordered eating and eating disorders. It is also the quick fix solution for those feeling dissatisfied with their body, but it is not the long-term answer for health and body confidence. Restrictive dieting can have serious and negative consequences on physical and mental health.
If you or your teen are concerned about their developing body and/or their weight and body size, seek professional help from a health professional; paediatrician, non-diet or a weight inclusive health professional (GP or dietician). Remember, our weight is determined by so much more than by food and exercise. Remember during this time, positive body image and body acceptance is the aim – focusing on weight or size is going to make it seem important to your child and will not help them to develop a healthy relationship with eating, exercise or their body.
How you talk about your body and the behaviours you engage in around diet, eating and physical activity can have a powerful influence on your teen. As adults we are not immune to diet culture messages in society which equate our worth to our weight. However, dieting or talking about weight control behaviours in front of your child sends a signal that you are not accepting of your own body and your child may take that as they should not be accepting of their body either. Instead of focusing on weight we should turn our attention to behaviours that support health; regardless of whether they lead to weigh loss or not.
Because young people often pick up on our feelings and actions it may be beneficial to seek help for yourself. It’s never too late to get support. Butterfly’s National Helpline is available to everyone.
It can be incredibly hard and heartbreaking for a parent to hear their teen (of any size, weight or body shape) speak this way. It can also be tough to know what response will help in the moment. If your teen has a larger body, it can be challenging to know how to respond without agreeing with them or encouraging weight loss or body shape change as the solution to how they are feeling (this is what diet culture thrives off).
Things that may be help:
- Acknowledge their feelings.
- Remind them that healthy, strong bodies come in all shapes and sizes.
- Remember that all bodies are different and that body size and weight are determined by much more than just food and exercise.
- Encourage movement that is fun and makes them feel good.
- Avoid using weight loss or body shape change as a motivator for any health behaviour (i.e. ‘start running and you might lose weight).
- Instead use language and motivators that consider their health, rather than their weight.
- Ensure they have access to foods that nourish their bodies and that they enjoy.
- Do not single out a child in a larger body out. All children will benefit from healthy behaviours.
- By adopting healthy behaviours, a person’s body will benefit and achieve health gains and their body will sit at the weight that is right and comfortable for them. This will look different for every person.
It is natural and normal for people to eat for reasons other than hunger. It is a normal, modern day human response to turn to food at times when we may feel happy, stressed, lonely, bored or anxious. If you find your teen is turning to food to soothe their mood or is ignoring their body cues, which can lead to over-eating encourage them to check in with themselves (‘Am I bored, stressed, worried, hungry or thirsty?’).
You can support them to adopt other, non-food related coping strategies to manage stressors. This might include, breathing, mindfulness, gentle stretching or gentle exercise, drawing, writing, listening to or playing music. The more tools they have to cope, the more resilient they will become.
You can expect a normally growing girl to double their weight between the ages of 9 and 18 and for boys between 10 and 20. Weight gain is a normal and essential part of puberty. Many parents are anxious about these weight changes, which is unsurprising given the fear in society around being higher weight. Do your very best not to comment on your teen’s weight or single them out within the family.
It’s important to remember that a person’s weight and shape is determined by so much more than food and exercise; genetics plays a huge part. Try and approach pubertal weight gain with a sense of calm. Provide your teen with access to a range of nutritious foods and encourage them to tune into a listen to their bodies hunger and fullness cues when making their own food choices, which they increasingly will at this age. During this time of transition body acceptance is key. Focusing on weight is going to make it seem important to your teen and can hinder the development of a healthy relationship with food, exercise or their body. Remember, health supportive behaviours are easier to stick to when they are not driven by fear, shame or guilt.
If you are concerned about rapid weight gain, do not put your teen on a diet. Seek professional advice (GP, paediatrician, or non-diet dietitian).
Unfortunately, appearance-based teasing is one of the most common forms of teasing and bullying in school yards. It is important to always let your teen know that bullying behaviour and language around bodies is the problem – not their body or appearance. There are many reasons why children think it’s OK to bully or tease others, it may be that they hear and see it in their own homes, have been subject to it themselves or they are experiencing low self-esteem and other problems. Whatever the reason, it is not ok and should not be tolerated.
People who are bullied about their weight are at higher risk of developing body dissatisfaction, disordered eating and eating disorders. So dieting is not the solution. Help your child to build their resilience and discourage any quick fix solutions.
Talk to your teens school if it is frequent and especially if it is occurring face to face and online.
Listen and acknowledge and avoid oversimplifying it by reassuring them that they are ‘beautiful’ or ‘not fat’ as this returns the dialogue to appearance, making it seem important. Instead, it’s about the other person’s behaviour, rather than your teen’s body or appearance.
If your teen is in a larger body, their weight may be the target of bullying. Remind your child of the Body Kind messages.
There can be a fine line between healthy and problematic training. Signs that your teen’s training has moved into the problematic over-training zone include:
- Training multiple times a day and/or training for excessive periods (2hrs+)
- Training on top of any training schedule set by a coach
- Training when sick or injured
- Increased injury or illness, fatigue, low mood, poor sleep. Erratic resting heart rate
- Experiencing distress and anxiety if unable to participate in a training session
- Training to the exclusion of other activities (catching up with friends, family events)
- Not sufficiently fueling for the volume of activity being engaged in
- Restricting food intake to decrease body fat/increase leanness
- Overuse of supplements (i.e. protein) or use of anabolic steroids (particularly in males)
- Preoccupation with muscularity (90% of boys who train in the gym do so to build muscle, rather than get fit or train for health benefits).
If you are concerned that your teen is over-training, aim to seek to understand directly from your teen. Ensure questions are framed in a non-judgemental way, that invites a discussion that may help you learn more about what’s going on. If your teen is an athlete or involved in rep teams, development squads or higher-level sport/dance discuss with a trusted person within the sport to share your concerns.
A helpful early intervention resource for parents (and coaches/fitness professionals) is www.howfaristoofar.org.au this also includes some tips about what to do next!
Boys are not immune to societal appearance ideals (typically lean and muscular for males) or the pressures of diet culture which equates appearance to worth and suggests quick fix solutions. Many boys are turning to high protein diets and/or protein supplements to build muscle. The problem with supplements is that it can be easy to consume too much protein which can cause kidney problems, and if supplements are drunk in place of meals there is a risk of nutrient deficiencies. When the driver of eating and exercise behaviours is to achieve leanness or increase muscle size it can be a sign of something more serious.
Muscle development is a complex process, so help your teen to understand that it isn’t as simple as more protein = more muscles. There are many factors that influence muscle size, development and growth, including genetics! Talk to your son about all bodies being good bodies and that despite what we might see in the media, bodies come in all shapes and sizes. For boys who develop later they are at a higher risk of experiencing body dissatisfaction which increases their risk of turning to muscle building supplements.
There are many ways to be a strong man and strength of a person cannot always be seen!
If your teen has become overly preoccupied with muscle development and growth, it is important to intervene as this may flag the start of a serious body image disorder, Muscle Dysmorphia. Like all serious eating and body image concerns, professional help and treatment is required.
Experimenting with fashion, trends, hair styles and make-up is a normal part of adolescence, for many teens. It is also a way for many teens to express who they are.
Helping your child to develop their own identity is an important part of their development. If you do not like your teen’s style or clothing choices, then it might be best for your teen, their body confidence and your relationship to adhere to the ‘if nothing nice to say, say nothing at all’. Keep the lines of communication open, ask questions and understand who and what may be inspiring their clothing choices (it may be their friends, a celebrity or influencer).
If your teen is over-grooming, dressing overly provocatively or wearing excess clothing – these can be flags that they may be struggling with their body image. It’s OK for them to have fun with how they look, but it shouldn’t rule their life. If your teen is spending a significant amount of time or money preparing for their outings, or if they are appearing stressed or anxious getting ready, this too can flag body image concerns.
Showering can be an incredibly confronting time for a teen as their body is developing and changing. It can also be incredibly challenging for a teen who is struggling with their gender identity. If your teen is refusing to bathe regularly, it may not be laziness or defiance, they could be struggling with their body image.
Things that may help:
- Ensuring they have deodorant to use and encourage this in the absence of a shower.
- If bathroom mirrors are challenging, encourage your teen to avoid the mirrors at shower time. Consider moving or covering.
- Do not force your teen to shower. Seek to understand what or why they are not wanting to shower/bathe.
- Remind your teen that showering is self-care and a sign of self-respect, which can support their self-esteem.
- If your teen continues to refuse to bathe/shower seek advice from a health professional.
Supporting a friend with an eating disorder can be challenging but it can really make a big difference to the person’s recovery. Encourage your teen to treat their friend as they usually would; inviting them along to things, talking to them about how they’re feeling and acting normally around food when they are with them. Your teen can be a voice of encouragement but do help them to set appropriate boundaries; it’s not their job to ‘fix’ their friend or be available 24/7.
It is also important to know that while some behaviours may be copied, eating disorders cannot be ‘caught’ or given. However if you are concerned about your teen also, seek professional support.
For more information on supporting a friend with an eating disorder, read our factsheet.
It can take a couple of attempts to find the right professional support, so it’s important to keep persisting. The Butterfly National Helpline has a referral database of health professionals around Australia screened for an understanding of eating disorders.
You can find out more about our Helpline services HERE
It can be hard to find the time to schedule eating together around so many other commitments as well as considering blended and non-traditional family dynamics. It’s not what is eaten or cooked that is the focus, but instead finding time, even if once a week to sit together to eat. It is a protective factor for many mental health issues.
Family meals give parents the opportunity to model healthy eating attitudes and behaviours, including food curiosity, food enjoyment, and eating to appetite cues as well as time together to discuss and share aspects of the day/week/month.
No. The body positive message and all messages that encourage people to feel good in the body they have, encourages people to be kind, to respect and take care of their body and acknowledges that when it comes to weight, shape and size, there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’.
Trying to fit into the societal appearance and body ideals come at cost – on physical and mental health. So instead the aim and goal is to encourage people to accept the body they are living in, move and eat for health benefits and enjoyment, to challenge the unhelpful and narrow body ideals that drive body dissatisfaction and be more than their body – focusing on what it can do and does and celebrating all that they are – rather than just how they look.
It may well be because your teen is being messy and leaving rubbish in their bedroom! However, if it seems like they have tried to hide ‘the evidence’ or a large amount of food has gone missing, in a relatively short period of time it may be a sign that your teen is eating in secret and/or binging. This is a sign of disordered eating.
Discuss this calmly with your teen, giving them the opportunity to explain what might be happening. They may still feel hungry after meals or they may be eating out of boredom or stress or simply unaware of what they are doing.
If your teen is engaging in disordered eating behaviours such as eating in secret or binge-eating, be prepared that their response may be accompanied with angry, denial, guilt, shame and/or embarrassment. Aim to keep the lines of communication open and if you require additional guidance contact Butterfly’s National Helpline.