Talking to a friend about health can be hard enough, but talking your parents about any kind of change can feel borderline impossible. Combine these two endeavours, and it can feel like you’re on a fool’s errand.
One of my close friends recently embarked on that very battle in a well-meaning attempt to get her mother, who has rheumatoid arthritis, to try out the potential benefits of introducing more anti-inflammatory foods into her diet. This suggestion was, predictably, met with resistance.
Watching my roommate navigate diet-talk with her parents, I felt a creeping sense of familiarity. This felt exactly like talking parents into taking COVID-19 seriously way back in March 2020 (not to mention all the ongoing conversations ever since). And a lot of the communication tips we mentioned for talking to parents about COVID also apply to talking to parents about what they eat.
The core issue often isn’t so much fighting about facts, but more about getting the people who raised you to accept your advice and change their own behaviour. As children, we’re concerned about our parents’ well-being, but as children, we also tend to feel unable to get our parents to actually listen to us. It’s hard to combat the “I’m set in my ways” defence, even when us kids are coming from a place of genuine concern (and, well, often scientific facts).
With that in mind, we should stop thinking like children and start thinking like the professionals do. One of the strategies used by clinicians to promote behaviour change from within is the idea of “motivational interviewing.” Below are the basics of how motivational interviewing works, and why it might be the best strategy for convincing your parents to adopt healthier eating habits.
Quick reminder: There is no one healthy “diet”
There are plenty of good faith reasons to want your family members to eat healthier, but before you try convincing anyone of anything, it’s important to understand that there’s no one right way to eat healthy.
Wanting your loved ones to eat more vegetables and get enough protein is fair game, but if you yourself are guided by a trendy diet or a private belief that your parents need to lose weight, check your own biases before pushing anything on your loved ones. It’s also important to recognise that unless you live with your parents, you aren’t getting the full picture of their daily eating habits–for better or worse.
This is all the more reason to use motivational interviewing to inspire change independently, rather than dictating diet “do’s and don’ts” at your parents. Armed with this healthy perspective, here’s how to go about that conversation.
What is motivational interviewing?
According to the National Lipid Association Clinician’s Lifestyle Modification Toolbox, Motivational interviewing (MI) is a guided style of communication that helps the other person independently want to change their behaviours. It’s a way to avoid making someone feel like they’re being forced into change. The goal of MI is to empower someone to want to change on their own. It’s supposed to be about having a conversation, rather than an intervention.
As Psychology Today explains it, MI is a “practical, empathetic, and short-term process that takes into consideration how difficult it is to make life changes.” For our purposes, you get your parents talking about their health goals, and then you get them talking about the practical changes they could make to achieve those goals.
How to use motivational interviewing
MI typically involves five key strategies:
- Express empathy. Try to see where your parents are coming from. Their ideas about their diet may have solidified decades ago, so don’t expect change to happen overnight.
- Avoid arguments. This is meant to be a true conversation. One tip is to find common ground about their health goals, rather than picking fights over specific habits.
- Develop discrepancy. This is about pointing out any mismatch between your parents’ current behaviours and their health goals.
- Resolve ambivalence. Do you and your parents disagree about what their health goals are? Why is that? Before you can talk about any sort of change, you all need to agree upon what that change even is.
- Support self-efficacy. You likely aren’t in charge of your parents’ health; they are. The whole point of MI is about guiding your parents to want to change their habits autonomously. Encourage your parents to talk about how they might enact certain changes on a practical, internally motivated basis.
If all the strategies above seem like a lot, there’s a handy acronym used by the professionals. Help yourself be a strong motivational interviewer with OARS:
1. Ask Open-ended questions.
2. Affirm your parents, with techniques like verbal validation or even just nodding your head.
3. Practice Reflective listening to show that you’re absorbing what your parents are saying
4. Summarize the conversation and reiterate whatever common ground you all ground.
Ultimately, you can’t solve someone else’s problem
MI is about having an open, honest conversation to help boost (or guide) someone’s internal motivation. You can’t solve your parents’ problems for them. The most important thing to remember is that even when you’re coming from a place of love, you have to accept what’s out of your control. Find an organic opportunity to have a conversation about your parent’s health, and remember that ultimately, your role is as a supporter. And if you try to have this conversation during Thanksgiving dinner, then I have to accept that I don’t know how to help you.