It’s the new F-word. “I’m so fat!” your child says. Or she asks, “Mom, am I too fat?”
First your heart sinks.
Then you have to decide (in the moment) how to respond.
Denial? “Don’t be silly. You’re not fat!”
Offering up reassuring comparisons? “Oh, but you’re much smaller than Molly or Ava.”
Suggesting creative workarounds? “Let’s buy some different pants that make you look leaner.”
Objectivity? “Let’s weigh you and see.”
Sidestepping weight-talk with fitness talk? “All you need is a good program.”
The best answer, according to Sheira Kahn, a psychotherapist in Alameda, California, who specializes in eating and body image disorders: none of the above.
In that moment, your daughter isn’t looking for verification of her size. She needs your emotional guidance.
Why she’s thinking about being fat:
Sure, media imagery plays a role, just as it did for us. And it’s now amplified by social media. But beneath that, blame puberty. “Girls in their tweens and early teens are going along being kids and then, boom!” Kahn says.
It’s totally normal to add 20 pounds during this phase and to change shape, like get taller, grow breasts, pad hips, add to thighs and buttocks. And this physical tornado coincides exactly with a social-emotional tsunami: the social shift from family to peers—an inner voice that discovers and is drawn to outside influences.
“It’s so confusing to feel this way,” Kahn told me.
The peak of fat focus starts surprisingly early: ages 10 to 14. But kids see and hear more than we think, so awareness and curiosity often percolate even earlier. More than half of 6- to 8-year-old girls think the ideal body weight is less than their own, shows Common Sense Media research. By age 7, one in four girls has tried some kind of diet. By 9 (fourth grade), the number rises to four in ten. Boys, too, are increasingly affected, though less than girls.
Here’s why getting it right on our end is so important:
What we say and do in response to fat-talk sets the stage for self-image for the rest of a child’s life.
(Yes, it’s that significant.)
“Girls are trying to figure out, ‘How do I relate to my body—which is becoming an adult body—and to myself?'” Kahn says. “What they’re really saying when they ask, ‘Am I fat?’ is, ‘Can you show me how to relate to my body?'”
So this is key: They’re not really talking about a number on the scale. Whether your daughter is underweight, overweight, or in between, she’s not asking for a judgment call about how she looks, Kahn says.
She’s searching for a reassuring guide.
The best way to respond:
“Your job as a parent,” Kahn says, “is to change the conversation—away from any kind of judgment and toward love and an emotional connection. In a veiled way, kids are asking us to model kindness to them.”
Your ideal response should do two things at once, she says: 1) Express empathy, and 2) Take judgment off the table.
Here’s what it looks like:
1. Show empathy.
The body pride movement aside, kids tend to use “fat” as a negative word. However it’s expressed—with anger, irritation, worry, curiosity—using it reveals that your child is feeling vulnerable underneath, Kahn says. She’s having painful, negative feelings about her body.
That’s why, all through your conversations, you want to let her know you get her pain or confusion. It’s a simple but huge thing that will make her feel more heard, and therefore more open to what you have to say next.
Disagree while offering empathy: “I don’t agree, but you seem confused.” Or, “I think you’re beautiful! But I can see you’re upset.”
Play back her feelings: “Oh, honey, you sound upset.”
Use nonverbal empathy: Offer a hug, hold her hand, stroke her hair.
Remember, her size is irrelevant here. Some girls are transitioning from a “puppy fat” phase to a more womanly body that’s attracting notice. Others have always been lean and feel unnerved about seeing any fat deposits (like breasts) for the first time.
A girl who’s on the chubbier side of the spectrum has another layer of vulnerability, since all around her she sees confirmation that her body doesn’t conform to prevailing images. “This child especially needs to feel that home is her safe place and her parents don’t judge her,” Kahn says.
2. Ask where that thought came from—and consider what she’s really wondering about.
Along with expressing empathy, gently probe: “Wow, what made you say [or ask] that?”
Kids are often tipped over into worry by a comment from a friend, or something they saw or overheard. “Emma’s mom told me I shouldn’t eat two cookies.” “Sophia said I’m too fat to borrow her Lulus.” “The ninth graders were seeing who had thigh gaps.” “I heard that Beyoncé didn’t get the part because she got fat.”
Kahn says that asking “Am I fat?” is likely your child’s way of saying something else. Something like:
I’m hearing a lot of talk about fat, and I don’t understand what it means. Can you explain it to me? (This is especially true of younger kids.)
My body is changing, and I don’t know how to handle it. Can you tell me more about that?
I’m feeling nervous about fitting in. Will you help me with that?
Something made me feel rejected. Can you help me figure it out?
3. Defuse the judginess.
As you talk about the real issue at hand, avoid joining that critical part of her mind that has reared its ugly head.
The secret to staying supportive is to avoid falling into the many ways we accidentally go critical:
By denial: Rushing right to “No you’re not!” ignores your child’s distress about the issue and shuts down the whole important conversation.
By comparing: Though the good intention is to make your child feel better, this only keeps the emphasis on appearance, reinforcing dangerous (and endless!) comparisons. There will always be someone thinner. And everyone has some amount of fat on her body. This response is just a distraction that ultimately hurts more than helps.
By focusing on clothes and looks: Even if your daughter explicitly asks, “Do I look fat in these pants?” the best answer still isn’t yes or no, Kahn says. Doing so only reinforces her worry that she’s defective as is—and that the solution is outside of her (the right outfit, a new haircut, reinforced Spanx) rather than within her.
By rushing in to “solve” a weight problem. Suggesting a “fitness program” or “nutrition plan” (new code words for diet, Kahn says) sends the message, You’re not acceptable the way you are. “You don’t ever want to send a kid down that road,” she says.
By using logic: It may seem like bringing out a scale or BMI chart would be a great neutral defense. “But if you get into whether your child is objectively fat, you’re buying into the voice of the critic in her head,” Kahn says. “Even if it’s well intentioned, without also giving your child support on how to be self-loving, it can be interpreted as more corroboration that there’s a problem.”
Besides, if she is overweight, she already knows it, Kahn told me. Let the health plan come from a neutral third party, not you.
“Parents are expected to be a child’s unconditional love fan club,” she says.
Push this conversation to her doctor—a benign authority figure who can offer guidance in a medical context. “We can talk to Dr. Smith about it at your next checkup.”
The solution with a child who’s overweight is to manage the underlying medical issue and/or work with a professional who can help a child learn about hunger and fullness signals and other mentally healthy approaches to wellness. Your own role in that area is to provide nutritious food and model an active life—but not to BE the weight coach.
Your best response follows this simple rule:
“Bring it back to emotions and love, and away from judgment.”
Growing up is hard—clothes that no longer fit, Instagram always in your face, moods and friends that can shift around like sand.
We grownups can make it easier.
“Your child is looking to you as a model for how to enter this phase of her life—which involves becoming a woman, dealing with peer groups, and people hooking up and having relationships,” Kahn says. Show her that you love her, inside and out.