My daughter is 13 and for the past couple of months she has been weighing her food and counting the calories. Thankfully she is a healthy girl and is neither fat nor skinny so we are not worried about her physical health. We are concerned about her self-image though and why she feels she needs to do this. How should we handle the situation? Her father and I have let her continue and only made relevant factual comments. Should we discourage her behaviour or let her grow out of it on her own?
Mum in Hove, Sussex
Dear ‘Mum in Hove’
There’s a lot of pressure on children to be thin. About 1% of teenagers have an eating disorder – and nearly 90% of those are girls. Children as young as 5 have been diagnosed with anorexia. Eating disorders are rising and so are the number of children worried about their weight.
So how can you help your daughter have a healthy weight and a healthy body image?
There are four main things that you can do:
First check- what message does your daughter get at home?
Here’s the big question – does your child ever hear you describe yourself as fat? Or on a diet? Or see you look in a mirror and criticise your own appearance?
If that is the case, then you’ll need to make sure she doesn’t hear say you say negative things about the way you look in future.
Secondly have a policy of healthy exercise and healthy eating.
Do you exercise regularly so that your daughter sees you keeping yourself healthy? Do you do active things with her?
It is useful to make sure everyone in the family is engaged in healthy levels of exercise - 30 minutes three or four times a week. And for a teenage girl – it is good if she can find some way to exercise every day – even if it’s just walking to school!
Also have a good range of healthy snacks available and don’t buy too many unhealthy ones.
And cook meals that are low in fat and in refined carbohydrates. With plenty of vegetables. (There are some great recipes in ‘The Hairy Dieters’ book– my teenage daughter loves to cook meals for the family using it!)
Your daughter will appreciate that you are ‘on her side’ by finding ways for her (and the whole family) to stay fit and healthy.
Thirdly, if your daughter uses the words ‘fat’ or ‘diet’ you should challenge her.
Don’t contradict her, but ask – does she really think that she’s fat? Ask her what she would like to be different about her body shape or size. And then talk about how healthy food and exercise can help her achieve that.
Talk to her about what she is trying to achieve by weighing her food, and explore all the ways she can keep her body fit and trim.
Make sure that you regularly comment on the good features of your daughter’s body and looks. And help her to make the most of her good features in the way she dresses.
And don’t ever comment on her weight. Particularly if you notice that she is putting weight on!
And finally help your daughter develop a realistic view of ‘normal’.
Young teenage girls have widely differing body shapes. Many are very slim- and still have child-like bodies. And some are developing their womanly curves – both are normal.
You might like to look at the Dove Self-Esteem Project on the internet, which has articles and activities to help parents boost their girls’ self-esteem about their bodies and looks.
Explain that every photo she sees in any magazine is air brushed and digitally enhanced. And that actors she sees on TV or in movies - and the artists on pop videos - are often chosen for their unusually slim bodies, clear skin and good looks. And they have make-up and hair stylists to keep them looking that way!
Ask her why she thinks that is? – To make the programme more popular, sell more magazines, to encourage people to buy certain clothes or make up or music?
The more discerning your daughter is about the messages and methods used by the media, the more she will see when she is being manipulated. And she will be more powerful to resist that pressure.
And I hope that your daughter will gradually start to feel good about the way she looks, and reduce the need to weigh her food.
10:52AM 27 Nov 2013 Reply
It is so hard to do this isn't it? My daughter is 8 and she is already conscious of how healthy she eats, and even this has caused problems for us in the past - with tears before meals because she thinks she is eating too much food that isn't good for her. We need to strike a balance between kids understand what food is good, and not making them paranoid about putting on weight or being un-healthy. Not an easy task. Good advice here, but important not to over-emphasise the healthy too. Balance diet is how we refer to it all!
11:13AM 27 Nov 2013 Reply
I was horrified when my daughter came home from Infant school and some of the children were already calling each other fat - we just try and promote healthy eating at home and excercise.
01:21PM 27 Nov 2013 Reply
This is such a tough one! I have two daughters, one 18 and one 11, and am so conscious about how I eat and talk about my own body in front of them because of not wanting them to have issues with food. It's so difficult though when they are bombarded every day with images/messages about how they should look.
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