Question: My 7yo daughter has been having anxiety about getting “fat.” I’m shocked because we never talk about her/our or anyone else’s weight in front of her. I never say “do I look fat?” or comment on my own body in a negative way. I’m also very careful not to expose her to womens/fashion magazines and her access to the TV/Internet is limited to age appropriate programming. I’m at a loss. I tell her that we should focus on what our bodies can DO not what our bodies look like. The focus should in being healthy. I tell her she’s beautiful and have her say it to herself in the mirror. Any other suggestions?
Reply from community member: I look forward to seeing Rachel’s response. We’ve had to deal with this too so I sympathize. I think the thing that helped the most was talking about how people’s bodies are different in lots of ways (short legs, long legs, straight hair/wavy hair, eye color) and different builds but it’s weird that only “fat” has a bad connotation. It doesn’t really make any sense. And then back to the most important thing is to be healthy.
Reply from community member: Here’s a possibly unconventional approach. I remember when I was a child I always felt ‘ugly’ and I often found different things to complain about (my neck is too long, I’m too skinny, my nose is too big). My mom always told me I’m beautiful and its whats on the inside that counts and blah blah blah. I’m not saying not to teach those things but it did not help me feel better in the moment. One thing I’m trying with my daughter, in addition to stressing the importance of being a good person, is that surface beauty is skillset, not an inherent quality. We talk about how someone picked a dress that looks really good on them, or how much time they must have spent getting their hair to look a certain way, or how many times that princess must have practiced putting on makeup, etc. If her saying “I’m getting fat” means “I don’t feel pretty” then maybe talking about different ways to accessorize her appearance might make her feel some control over that. Not in a “you have to do this to fit in” kind of way but in a “you are in control of how the world perceives you” kind of way. Now when my daughter complains “I want to be beautiful like a princess” instead of saying “you are beautiful, honey”, I ask “what would make you feel beautiful?” and she goes to pick out a dress, and some strange unconventional accessories, and fancy shoes and she feels amazing.
RACHEL’S RESPONSE: I completely understand your confusion. (Even my kindergartner has mentioned that her cheeks are “too chubby” and she DEFINITELY didn’t hear that from me or anyone in our home. And she doesn’t look at magazines, etc.) They hear about these things from peers (who often have parents who DO talk about fat and skinny, etc.) and they’re exposed to messages that we may not even know about.
The above responses are great!
I would support what they’re saying and add that we just want to be sure that we’re not implying that they shouldn’t feel the way they feel. So if she says, “I’m afraid of getting fat,” you don’t want to say “You’re not fat” or “You don’t have to worry about that.” All that says to them is that their feelings are wrong and makes them not want to share with us in the future.
Ultimately helping kids through ANY type of worry is about being with them with their feelings, showing them we can handle their feelings, and giving them tools to feel empowered.
So when she says, “I’m afraid of getting fat,” stay as calm as you can and casually ask her about it (or listen if she just talks on her own). And then you can say, “Thanks for sharing that with me.” Then — either at that time, if you think she’s open to problem solving, or later — say, “Is there anything that you want to do to help with that feeling?” Sometimes kids don’t need / want solutions; they just need to talk about their fears. But when they do want solutions and can come up with them on their own (we can help them get there, of course, but we don’t want to fix everything for them or they become too dependent on us), they feel empowered to deal with what they’re worried about.
Reply from community member: One more thing I remembered…..I started to realize that sometimes my daughter was saying statements like this because she was fishing for a compliment. We had a long talk about that sometimes people just want to hear something nice and that’s normal but instead of putting herself down, could she just say “I want to hear something nice.” She’s done that a few times now and it’s nice because it’s easier for me to target something nice to her and it’s a clearer indication that she’s feeling down about something or not having a good day.
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Reply from community member: I don’t have this exact issue yet, but a relative recently said in front of my daughter (also 7) that she’d have to stop eating so much or she might get fat. (So you never know where your child might have heard this stuff.) This also happened with a different very old relative when she was much younger, and another relative recently said something to my husband on the phone, but I’m pretty sure would do it in person in front of her if there was an opportunity. He went the route of saying she’s not fat to which the person replied that that might not always be true. I think maybe it’s better to say it’s none of your business.
In the recent case, I was in shock and didn’t say anything, and my husband wasn’t there. Daughter never brought it up. What should I say in the moment and later, keeping in mind these people are relentless? Example: One went on and on about how I had lost weight and was I making myself throw up? That was in front of my daughter, and I didn’t say anything then either, mostly because I think it would just make things worse and prolong the “conversation.”
RACHEL’S RESPONSE: You make a good point, people like this are relentless. MOST of the time, we’re not going to motivate them to stop. That’s not what we should focus on.
- In the moment, I’d model what you’d want your daughter to do in the moment even if you weren’t there. I suggest having you / her focus on what is in her control, since what other people say isn’t in her control. Maybe it’s saying something like “I’m not comfortable with this conversation” and walking away, or maybe it’s just not engaging and letting them talk until they stop. I’ve taught my kids to imagine themselves holding up a stop sign in front of them, and when someone says something about them they don’t like, they imagine those words hitting the stop sign and falling to the ground.
- Proactively, I’d have a conversation with her about what was said. Was she bothered by those words? Is there anything she wants to talk to you about? Does she need help working through anything? You can remind her that she never has to be alone with her feelings and that you’ll always talk things through with her. (Note: I wouldn’t make a bigger deal out of this than it is to her. If she’s not too bothered by it, teach her a quick lesson and move on.)