My daughter is eight and the tallest and most developed girl in her class. She looks 10 or 11 and has already expressed that her friend said she has chubby legs. She looks in the mirror and frowns. She says she is fat. Now, I am a personal trainer and group exercise instructor. I have always been involved in helping people overcome their body issues and love themselves. I feel the powerlessness of thinking that I tried to model healthy behaviors, but somehow failed. I have always tried to be respectful of all people when I speak in front of my daughter. I am not obsessive about my own diet. I talk a lot to her about nutrition, but I thought it was important for her understand what is healthy. Her stepmother is a wonderful woman, but I know she expresses her unhappiness about her weight, and I’m sure I do it too, unconsciously. But now that the damage is done, how do we go about helping her feel good in her skin? She just joined
swim team so her activity will be 90% increased, and we have cut back on portions and junk food, but she knows we are and feels like she’s being denied and left out. Honestly, she is not even overweight by more than five pounds for her height. We took her to an endocrinologist to rule out precocious puberty, and the woman looked at my eight year old and said, “You need to exercise and eat better. You are just overweight.” I thought her bedside manner was deplorable, but I’m sensitive about this issue. I am so afraid of her having an eating disorder this young, if ever. I’m scared. Any suggestions?”
Thank you so much for your story and your willingness to share it with others. It is my belief that it is so important to share our struggles with others, so we know we are not doing this alone. Let me congratulate you on having the courage to dig deeper and find answers to help your daughter. This experience has the ability to translate into a journey of gratitude and discovery that you and your daughter can share and bond over.
From the point of view of someone who has come out of a childhood/young adult eating disorder and found many resources for solutions, here are a couple of thoughts that you may want to consider:
- Gauge the intensity of your child’s emotions. Speaking to your daughter about how she feels when her friends comment on her thighs is a great way you can evaluate, as a mother, how it is impacting her mentally. If you feel that an eating disorder is in the making, then a possible evaluation from an ED therapist in your town can be helpful. The National Eating Disorder Association (http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org) has a great site, and you can find help within your area by typing in your zip code.
- Challenge the facts. As you know, at eight years old we are growing and changing all the time. It is really important that we review the facts, like is five pounds really a major issue for a growing child who is developing faster than her peers? When we step back and look at the facts, it can help us emotionally. Each fact needs to be viewed in the light of your child’s growth as an individual.
- Create a healthy “gratitude attitude” about your body. Have you ever spoken to your daughter about the body, and all the wonderful things it does? Espra Andus (LCSW) says that when we do this, we take away the body image issue and place the concept of the body back in reality — in its functions and capacities. We put the focus back on the body doing its rightful job: “I am grateful that my body allows me to walk, talk and be fueled when it is required.” “My body is so smart; it tells me when I am hungry. I know I will get all that I need to fuel it when it gives me the signals.” And be sure to share with each other when you get these signals!
- Help children distinguish between physical hunger and emotional hunger. What is the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger? How do you, Mommy, deal with emotional hunger? Share this with your daughter. If it is something you feel you need to work on yourself, do it together.
- Equip children with the power of self-care. Talk about self-care as you go for a walk together and/or sit down to eat dinner together. Then talk about other things, rather than food, to incorporate the whole picture of body, mind and spirit.
- Explain the damage of comparing ourselves to others. Have you opened up a dialogue about how it feels to know that Mommy is a personal trainer? Is it possible that she may feel that she doesn’t measure up? A conversation about all human beings are different and that as individuals it is our differences that are usually also our gifts, can usually act as a great inspirational tool for our children.
- Create a “round table” open dialogue. Did you discuss whether her feelings were hurt when that doctor stated that she needed lose weight? It is very important that we allow and encourage our children to speak their truth. We may not be able to prevent our children from having an eating disorder, but we can provide support and a safe place where emotions are welcomed and, therefore, not as frightening to our children.
- Help children create self-worth. Swimming is a brilliant idea! Honoring our bodies for what they do and what they look like now provides us with the ability to make choices from a place of strength instead of fear. When we move and exercise from a place of strength, we create self-esteem and trust within ourselves. When we move from fear, we come to believe that we are not enough and can’t be trusted.
- Gather the troops. Speak with your daughter’s stepmother and tell her of this new journey. Making comments about our own bodies, or our loved ones’ bodies, is not how we want to encourage a child to gauge her, or others’, worth.
You are a great Mom. Remember that!