Dr. Susan Bartell, author of Dr. Susan’s Fit and Fun Family Action Plan: 301 Things You Can Do Today, shares Ten Tips for Moms that will help you help your overweight daughter.
Does This Sound Familiar?
When I first met the mother of 17-year-old Sandee she was beside herself with frustration. . .
Sandee is at least twenty-five pounds overweight, according to her doctor. And I just don’t know what to do about it. I’ve tried everything. I even offered to diet with her for support, but she refused. Nothing works, she just keeps gaining weight and she doesn’t even seem to care! In fact, she’s always angry with me. I’m at my wit’s end!
I saw Sandee later that day. Her mother was right: she was significantly overweight. But interestingly, she had a very different story to tell.
My mother is constantly nagging me about my weight. She thinks I don’t care about how I look and that if she keeps reminding me, I’ll suddenly stop eating and get skinny. She doesn’t realize how hard it is for me. She suggested that we go on a diet together — but I said no way! If I did that, she’d really be watching everything I eat! Does she honestly think that will help me? Besides, of course I care about my weight, I’d just never tell her because she’s so critical.
For Sandee and many of the girls with whom I work, weight is a significant issue. They live in a world of “super-sizing”, “two for the price of one” and “all you can eat”. Food is part of practically every aspect of their social lives. What’s more since many parents work, teens find themselves with unstructured time after school and there can be great temptation to eat in order to fill time or cope with life’s pressures.
For many girls, food and eating seem to be a central aspect of their family life as well. Their parents may love to eat and have lots of food and junk food around, making it difficult to resist temptation. Alternatively, parents (particularly mothers) may be overly concerned about their own weight — living on salads and exercising constantly. This may cause a daughter to use food and overeating as a form of rebellion. What’s more, learning dieting behavior, rather than healthy eating, will also make it hard for a girl to learn healthy habits. Given this complex set of issues, it is no wonder so many girls are overweight.
To make matters worse, teens are complex and emotional at the best of times, so parenting them can be very trying. And the relationship between teenage girls and mothers is particularly complicated. Dealing with your daughter’s normal psychological and developmental changes is challenging enough.
In addition, the very act of raising a daughter often evokes (sometimes painful) memories of your own adolescence causing you to respond emotionally to your daughter’s life experiences. An overweight daughter might remind you of your own emotional pain experienced as an overweight teen, or the negative feelings you had about a peer who was overweight.
The struggle to keep your daughter close while she tries to become independent can also impact on how much she’s willing to accept your opinion about how she looks and what she should do about it. For many girls, their new found independence is fragile. So they won’t consider any opinions from mom — the one person from whom they’re trying to separate.
When you have an overweight daughter the first and most important information you need is that you have very little control over your daughter’s eating or exercising habits.
This may come as a surprise to you and you may not like it (or even believe it!) but the truth is, by the time your daughter reaches about 13 (it could even be a bit younger), you may be able to control things like school attendance, curfew, or TV and computer time. But your control over her bodily functions — such as sleep, eating, sex, alcohol, smoking and drugs — becomes more and more limited over time. Hopefully, you’ve done your best to instill good lifetime habits, you’ve shown by example how to live a healthy life and you’ve fostered an open, communicative relationship with your daughter.
These will all go far to guide her down the right paths. But in reality, when it comes to food and eating, you will not be able to force-feed her fruit and vegetables. You also won’t be able to refuse to allow her sweets. She will get them elsewhere and eat them without you knowing. This won’t help her become healthier. Instead it will foster resentment, lying and secrecy between you and her.
What’s a Mom To Do?
So what can you do to help your daughter? In fact, there is a great deal, and my Ten Tips will help guide you not only to helping her become healthier, but also to developing a closer relationship with her.
You may find some or all of these suggestions difficult to accomplish, depending on your own issues around food and eating, and also taking into account your overall relationship with your daughter. But all are important and even if you master them very slowly, one at a time, you will feel better and so will she.
Dr. Susan’s Ten Tips for Moms
1. Don’t assume your daughter is overweight (unless it is truly obvious). It is important (for her!) to hear it from her doctor. If her doctor does not think she is significantly overweight, I’d suggest you look closely at why you feel she is. Perhaps this is your issue, rather than being an objective problem.
2. If you confirm a real weight problem, you must separate your daughter (whom you love) from her weight (which you may hate).This means telling yourself and her that you will love her no matter what she looks like, but that at her current weight, you are concerned about her health, her self esteem and her social life. (If you can’t do this and you really dislike her based on her weight, I’d suggest you speak with someone who can help you overcome these feelings — a counselor, friend, religious leader — as these negative feelings will be far more detrimental to your relationship with your daughter than her weight.)
3. Ask your daughter if there is anything you can do to help her become healthier — you’ll notice that I did not use the words “lose weight.” Your goal is to help her make healthier life decisions rather than lose weight. If she begins to eat healthily and exercise, weight loss will naturally follow, over time. If she doesn’t know how you can help her, suggest that perhaps a meeting with her doctor, a nutritionist, a fitness instructor or even a counselor (if you think she may be depressed) might be a good start.
4. Resist the urge to suggest dieting. Diets are never healthy for teens or young women (or anyone for that matter). Living a healthier lifestyle will be the key to her feeling better. If you tend to diet frequently, it’s time to re-evaluate the messages you’re sending your daughter.
5. Tell her that you will provide her with the help she requests and that you won’t try and push anything else on her. Explain that you will be as non-judgmental as you can.
6. After you have made these statements in a gentle, non-critical manner, it’s time to back off. Constantly reminding her that you disapprove of her body, eating or exercise habits will only alienate you from her, rather than being helpful. She will experience you as critical, nagging and unsupportive — which may just cause her to eat more, rather than less. It will also, no doubt, be the cause of many fights between you.
7. Even though you’ve been nagging her for months or years, you can still make things better. During a private moment, tell her you’re sorry for nagging her so much, and for focusing so much on her weight and her eating. Explain that it is difficult for you because you worry about her.
8. If your daughter refuses your help, don’t push it on her. Let her know that you are available to help if she ever changes her mind. This may be very, very difficult for you, because you will feel like you’re standing by as she hurts herself emotionally and physically. This is one of the most difficult parts of having a young woman, rather than a child as your daughter — remembering that you can’t force your help on her.
9. Take a look at yourself as honestly as possible. Is your relationship with your own body and with food as healthy as it could be? The messages mothers send their daughters about food, eating, body image and exercise are very powerful. Going on a diet with your daughter is not the answer. But becoming happier, more energetic and filling your body with nutritious food may be. Do you exercise? If not it might be time to start. If you do it too much, perhaps you should find other interests. Your daughter needs to see you incorporating exercise healthily into your life — not never, and not to the exclusion of everything else.
10. Show your consistent love and support. Whether or not your daughter chooses to take steps to become healthier right now, be reassured that as long as you show consistent love and support for her, your concerns for her health will not be forgotten. Hopefully she will choose to make healthier life choices when she is ready. And when she does, you will be the first to know.