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‘My 15-year-old daughter is constantly snacking and eating mindlessly’

Nothing I say has an impact so do I just leave her to figure it out herself?

Question: My 15-year-old daughter is constantly snacking and eating mindlessly. When she was younger I had more control over what she ate, however it's more difficult now as a teenager and she has started to gain weight.

At least two of her classmates are suffering from eating disorders and I am so mindful of saying the wrong thing. I never mention weight to her, I just keep talking to her about eating healthily and mindfully. Last night, I found her eating crackers in the kitchen at 10pm after a substantial dinner. When I asked her if she was hungry she said “No, I just like eating.”

I feel like nothing I say is having any impact so I’m wondering how to get through to her or do I just leave it and let her figure it out herself? The latter option feels wrong to me.

Answer: Developing a healthy relationship with food is particularly challenging for young people in the modern world. On the one hand, it is easy to get into a pattern of overeating which can lead to the long-term health problems associated with being overweight or obese. Recent Growing Up In Ireland research found obesity rates among 20 year olds have increased sharply since the same individuals were teenagers. On the other hand, in response to social pressures around dieting and body image many teenagers over-restrict their eating and some go on to develop eating disorders such as anorexia. During the Covid crisis the rates of young people requiring hospital treatment for eating disorders have risen by 50 per cent.


As a parent, it is very difficult to get the right response when you are worried about your teenager’s pattern of eating. You have to tread a delicate path of encouraging your children to eat healthily without causing them to over-restrict or obsess about their diet, while making sure you give a positive message about body image and self-esteem.

Reflect about your communication

When dealing with delicate subjects like diet with teenagers, it can feel easier to keep your opinions to yourself and avoid the subject altogether. However, if you do this, your thoughts and feelings are usually communicated indirectly and can “leak out” as criticisms and judgments. For example, you might inadvertently make a negative comment when you see your daughter eating mindlessly or when the subject of dieting/body image comes up spontaneously. Instead, I suggest it is important to take time to rehearse and prepare what you want to say to your daughter. Think through what positive messages you want to give her and how you might get these across.

Respond well in the moment

When you catch your daughter eating after dinner, use this as an opportunity for a positive discussion. When she says she is not hungry but just likes eating, try to listen and draw her out rather than offering an opinion. Simply repeating what she is saying or asking her to tell you more can be a good way to start. Communicate that you understand – “It is easy to get caught into eating as a habit, especially when we are surrounded by food… I sometimes do this.” As well as giving her a message about the importance of mindful eating, ask her questions to encourage her to think this out for herself – “What do you think is the best way to eat healthily?” Also, sharing your own experience and struggles can sometimes be very helpful.

Find a way to discuss eating disorders

Rather than avoiding the subject, find a way of discussing the challenges her classmates are having with eating disorders. This might be a tricky subject to raise and you have to pick your best moment. This could be drawing her out when she says something spontaneously or you could raise the subject directly when you are out on a walk together – “I was wondering how J and P in your class are doing?” Be compassionate and understanding about her classmates and once again encourage her to talk first before you share an opinion. You want to draw her out so she can get a sense of how she thinks and feels about the issue.

This way you can get a sense if she is likely to have similar challenges as her classmates and you can use the conversation as an opportunity to help her learn and think differently. For example, you can ask questions – “How does someone get into an unhelpful habit of over-dieting?” or “How can you make sure you eat healthily despite pressures? What support might someone need?” Talking in a third-party way about other people is often the best way to influence teenagers and to help them think out issues for themselves.

Focus on healthy family habits

Ultimately, your daughter will have to work out many of these issues for herself, but you can give her a good start by making sure you talk about the issues and by communicating positive messages and values. You can also set a good example in the home by making sure you establish healthy family habits that set a foundation for her as she grows up. Creating routines such as planning weekly meals together, having set mealtimes, sitting down together to eat as a family, “closing the kitchen” in the evening to avoid late eating, can all make a difference.

Sit down with your partner and daughter and think what healthy habits you already have and what ones you might introduce.

- John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. He is giving a free online talk for parents, Starting Healthy Family Habits in the New Year, on Thursday, January 13th, 7.30pm. See