Parents often wonder about the best way to work with their kids on weight, dieting, and body image. What can you do when you’re worried about your child’s weight? How does a parent avoid passing down intergenerational patterns of body shaming?
Parental concerns around weight
Recently, a parent reached out to me about their concern for their daughter’s increasing body weight, along with their fear of passing on to her the unhealthy messages about weight they learned from their own parents. Here’s this parent’s email (edited for clarity):
Dear Dr. Coor,
I’m writing to you because I’m really concerned about my teenage daughter’s weight. She’s always been what people might call a ‘healthy’ or ‘sturdy’ kid, but lately, she’s gained a significant amount of weight. I think she tries to eat well, but she’s got this huge appetite. And like most teenagers, she’s pretty overscheduled and doesn’t have much time, desire, or motivation for physical activity.
Let me say right off the bat that I know that I have my own body-image issues, and I’m worried that I’m projecting them onto my daughter. When I mentioned that she seemed to have gained weight, she denied it and I’ve noticed she’s now started wearing baggier clothes as if she wants to hide her body. She shuts down whenever I raise any issue about her weight or her body.
I feel like I’m completely failing her. I want to help her, but I don’t know how. My therapist has been pointing out how my own body image and body-weight issues are triggering my fears about my daughter—and she’s right. Even though I’ve been working on my issues for years, I still somehow haven’t gotten to the place where I can help her.
I’m thinking that we need to enlist some professional help, but what kind of help does she need? I’m hoping that you can point me in the right direction. I want to find someone who can help her develop a healthy body image and learn how to make positive changes to her lifestyle.
I know that this is a sensitive issue, and I appreciate your willingness to address it on your podcast. I’m hoping that by sharing my story, I can help other parents who are struggling with the same issue.
Thanks for your time and consideration.
A Concerned Parent
Well, first of all, Concerned Parent, you really illuminate how it is hard to see your child struggle with something that you don’t know how to help them with. I can hear how stressed and concerned you are about your daughter, and you know what? You’re not alone. Many parents struggle with this issue. You may feel sad and anxious because it’s hard to see your daughter gaining weight. You might think you’re a bad parent for not doing enough to help her. Perhaps you feel guilty and self-critical because you’re projecting your own childhood traumas onto her.
Thank you for sharing this with me and the Project Parenthood audience. You’re clearly a very dedicated parent. Respectful parenting helps us connect with our kids and treat them kindly. It’s clear that you’re working on your own “stuff” around the messages you internalized about body size. But you also yearn for your child’s well-being. You’ve done a very vulnerable and courageous thing in contacting me to find help for her.
Who has the problem?
I have some wonderings about your conundrum. Like, does your daughter have a problem with her body size? Or does she just have a problem with you having a problem with her body size? Because if she’s fine with how she looks, but is stressed about your negative judgments about her body, that’s a separate issue.
I often work with parents who worry about their child’s weight, their child’s trouble in friendships, or even their child’s ways of being in the world that are simply difficult for the parents to witness or tolerate.
When to intervene
This isn’t what parents usually like to hear, but, unless it’s a matter of health or safety, it’s rarely successful to intervene in kids’ problems in an effort to get them to change in some way. In your mind, perhaps your child’s weight gain falls under the umbrella of “health.” Unless a doctor has told you that her situation is life-threatening, perhaps there’s no cause for alarm at this time.
If, upon self-reflection, you realize that this is more about your parental preference and desire for your child to be different, or behave or think differently, it may be more beneficial for you to do some work around your own issues with who and how your child authentically is. Especially since your daughter isn’t coming to you for help losing weight.
This is not to say that you should stand idly by while your child self-destructs, but that using your parental power to try to coerce your child to change (which is acting from a power-over stance vs. a power-with stance) will generally backfire. Humans, especially child and teen humans, will usually resist perceived control. Many times to their own detriment.
How to best help your child
The greatest gift you can give to your child is unconditional acceptance. But that’s hard to give to someone else if you’re not also giving it to yourself. Your kids are influenced less by what you say and more by who you are. So perhaps, concentrating on your own body issues, learning to accept yourself unconditionally, and treating yourself well by giving your body nutritious food, exercise, and care is what your daughter needs most from you. It’s a much better use of your time and efforts to focus on things that are within your control. What your child does with or how she treats her body is not in your control.
The more you try to control her, the more damage it will do to your relationship with her. And if she’s truly struggling, she needs her relationship with you to draw strength from. A trusting, connected, and unconditionally loving relationship with your child is your most powerful parenting tool. When your daughter feels genuinely connected to you, she’ll be much more open to allowing you, your values, your beliefs, and your modeled behaviors to influence her.
As a parent, you will experience challenging and upsetting situations that you just can’t change. Radical acceptance can help you cope. Dr. Coor explains radical acceptance, how it can help when parenting gets hard, and how to put it into action.
Consider professional help
On the other hand, if she specifically asks you for help around this issue, I would start with a nutritionist and/or a therapist who specializes in eating disorders. You can both learn more about the concept of “health at every size” at www.haescommunity.com. If she’s not asking for help, I encourage you to radically accept her as she is, model healthy body image and healthy living, and trust that she’s watching and taking note.
When to comment on appearance
In the meantime, make zero comments on her appearance or anyone else’s, including your own. No positive comments, no negative ones. Just none. When you make comments on someone’s appearance, even a positive comment, it feels evaluative. The person may focus less on your compliment, and more on the fact that their appearance is being evaluated and judged. And in our society, everyone—especially girls and women—could do with fewer opinions of their appearance.
Feel your feelings
Your child is a unique human being having her own experience in life, not an extension of you or your past. But projecting your unhealed wounds onto your kids often happens outside of your awareness. So focus less on controlling situations in the present so that your child avoids the painful experiences you had (or worried about having) in childhood. When you get that urge, you’re really trying to avoid the uncomfortable feelings that are getting kicked up for you as you witness your child going through something. Rather than avoiding your uncomfortable feelings, hold those feelings with compassion and kindness, and focus more on finding closure and healing around your painful childhood experiences.
It sounds like you’re getting triggered by your child’s appearance. For other parents, the trigger might be something else. Such as, seeing your child in competitive situations, or when issues of compliance and obedience arise. Triggers could also fire when belonging, fitting in and friendships are involved, or their performance in sports/academics is in question. The more fear you have tied up with these issues leftover from your childhood, the more you might try to control the situation when your child encounters them. In the moment, you might think you’re simply trying to protect your child from emotional pain, when it’s really about protecting you from the emotional pain you’re anticipating given your own childhood experience.
In the end, you can’t control your daughter’s body weight or body image. What you can do is model a healthy body image for her, provide her with a supportive and loving environment and a parent who loves her fiercely no matter what she looks like.
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.