Last week, I introduced my friends Amy and Jeffrey Olrick in the first of a series of parenting questions I’ll be sharing on the blog for the next several weeks. Jeffrey is a clinical psychologist with over 20 years of experience working with children and families, and together with Amy–a writer, mother, advocate and fiercely loving friend–they’ve become an incredible resource for tough parenting situations not only for me but for many others who get to call them friends. Their parenting book about the six core needs that every child has and every parent can meet publishes next year. Until then, I’m honored to share their wisdom and heart in this space.
This question is a big one, one that will resonate with so many. In my family and friend circles alone, I’ve heard this question raised so many times in the last ten years and know countless women who’ve recalled their own struggles with weight and body image over the years, many of them heightened by comments from their parents. How do we set the stage as parents for healthy body image? How do we watch our girls’ bodies change over the years and provide nothing but love and radical acceptance? When we chose this question to tackle this week, I waited and watched my e-mail box, eager to read Jeffrey and Amy’s response. And when it came, it did as I suspected…it made me tear up and so feel inspired and committed to being nothing but love and a source of constant confidence for my girls as they grow.
My early teen daughter has begun gaining weight. How do I let her know that she’s beautiful and that weight doesn’t matter, but also help her make better choices? Should I get involved or ignore it?
I have several friends who had a weight problems growing up and have struggled with self-worth when they were teens. I don’t want my daughter to have to deal with that, but I also don’t want to cause further issues. How do I push against society’s standards of women’s beauty but also help her make healthy choices? — Wondering about Weight
We want to ask you an honest question, one central to your own. If you were to gaze into a mirror right now, could you say this sentence with conviction?
I am beautiful.
Now, how about this one?
My daughter is beautiful, just as she is.
Do these statements feel true to you? We hope so. Because today, just as you are, you are beautiful. You always have been beautiful, even if we live in world that won’t let you believe that. Your daughter is beautiful, too, though countless external messages are telling her a different story. Those same messages may even be keeping you from fully accepting the beauty of your own child.
Since before our kids were born, we’ve been surrounded by product placements of carefully curated, airbrushed children. We’re constantly being sold an idea of what beautiful and healthy teenagers should look like and what we should value. But what society tells us is good is often not what is true.
On average, teenage girls gain about 15 pounds as they go through puberty. Teenage boys gain about 30. Their bodies are growing and stretching, often up and then out, then up again. In teenage girls, the fat they’re gaining prepares them to develop the hips, breasts and thighs of womanhood. Their bodies and their hormones are shifting all the time, and their brains are developing, too. Changes in their brains’ limbic and prefrontal cortex areas make emotions more intense and give teenagers the perception that everyone is looking at them and judging. Pair that with the fact that they’re growing up in a world that places huge value on social status and narrowly-defined beauty, and we begin to understand why it’s wise to broach the subject of physical appearance with tenderness and wisdom.
So before having any kind of conversation with your daughter about her weight and appearance, spend some time thinking about your our own fears, feelings and shame around this issue. Otherwise, you’ll risk handing an unresolved version of your struggles to her, under the guise of helping and in the language of I’m worried about you.
If there is any part of you that wants your daughter to lose weight because of how having a thinner kid would make you feel, start by acknowledging that to yourself. Then begin retraining your brain to notice the beauty of all the different sizes and shapes and skin tones of the people you pass on the street or in the grocery store. Look at gangly, pudgy or pimply teenagers with love and compassion. Start consuming media with a wide range of body sizes and ages and colors and abilities. As you marvel at the vastness of our human experience, you’ll open yourself up to a much broader understanding of all that is beautiful.
Then, if your daughter is in the wide range of normal—if she’s active and engaged and eating because she wants to, even if she isn’t making the healthiest choices, don’t talk about weight unless she brings it up. Just love her and focus your energies on supporting her interests in this sensitive time. Reflect back to her the beauty you see in her energy and creativity.
If she seems unhappy, disconnected, anxious, or withdrawn and is using food to cope with those feelings, talk with her what you’re observing. Try and understand what she’s experiencing. She needs your care and concern for her heartache and pain, not her weight or appearance. Affirm that it’s hard to be a teenager. Tell her that things will get better, and commit yourself to being with her along the way.
On your own, model a healthy relationship with food. Choose whole foods over processed and turn to things other than treats for comfort. Let her see you engaging in physical exercise you enjoy, and invite her to join you on activities like walks and bike rides. Try not to push her, because being overinvolved in her choices now could disempower her from making healthy choices later, when she’s more ready.
And if it’s your daughter who steers the conversation to weight and body image, ask her about the pressures she’s feeling. Where does she think the pressure comes from, and how does she think her life would be different if she were thinner? Talk to her about your own journey around weight and self-worth. What have you learned? What do you regret? What do you still struggle with? Teenagers can be moody and hard to understand sometimes, but they can also be funny and brilliant and have perspectives that add richly to our own. Listening to what your daughter has to say in response to your stories may strengthen your relationship in unexpected ways.
Whenever you can, steer the conversation about weight away from numbers, be it numbers on a scale or calories on a food label. Numbers can easily become a focus that leads to obsession. In fact, the simplest thing you can do for you and your daughter’s mental health around weight is to throw away the scale. Research shows that she is likely to feel less depressed and anxious and to have higher self-esteem as a result of that one revolutionary act.
Know this: We are our children’s first mirror. We are their first scale. They measure their worthiness in the weight of what we reflect back to them about themselves. If they sense disapproval from us about their bodies, they’ll internalize that judgment. It will confirm the wider world’s messages. But if we show them something different, we can help set them free.
You cannot control daughter’s choices or determine exactly how her life will go. But you can point her to a healthy future by being healthy yourself and empowering her to see her own beauty. With your words and your actions, give her a legacy that says:
You are beautiful, just as you are.
You can connect more with the Dr. Jeffrey Olrick and Amy Olrick on their site, Growing Connected, and follow them on Instagram @growingconnected or Facebook. If you have a parenting question or issue you’d like Amy and Jeffrey to tackle, feel free to leave it in the comments. You can also sign up for their newsletter where they share more questions, answers and encouragement for any parent seeking more connection with their kids.