Is fat mom cause of a too-thin daughter?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  March 4, 2010 06:00 AM

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Question: My 5-year-old thinks that she is fat. I'm very worried about her, because she doesn't want to eat at all. Could it be because I'm overweight? Please help me out. Thank you

From: Dolly, Las Animas

Dear Dolly,

It is certainly true that as parents, we are the most powerful role models our children have. It is also true that children as young as 5 can develop disordered eating habits which can lead to eating disorders.

It would be somewhat unusual, however, for a 5-year-old to be aware enough to recognize that her mother is fat and she doesn't want to be like that UNLESS your weight is a source of frequent conversation in your family. For instance: Do you talk about being overweight in front of her? Are you someone who expresses unhappiness about being overweight? Are you constantly trying some new diet, or saying you can't eat this or that because you're too fat, or that you can't do an activity because you're too fat? Is your husband or someone else in the family critical of your weight? And here's another important question: Does your daughter watch a lot of TV, especially programming that is not explicitly produced for a child her age? If she's a big media consumer, and she's watching adult programming, she is most certainly being exposed to ideas and images of bodies that could lead her to want to be thin. The best way to counter the unhealthy influence of media is to simply limit her screen time to no more than two hours a day and to make sure that it's age-appropriate programming.

It is possible for an overweight parent to actually be a positive role model to a child, not so much by talking about being overweight, but by setting a realistic goal for yourself and following through: "I really want to be healthier. I'm going to walk every night after dinner for an hour, and I'm going to start eating healthy food, like no more junk food."

Here's something else you can do: Talk to her about female bodies in general and her body in particular. Point out women she knows and how their bodies are different. Talk about what makes a body healthy, and how you hope she will be healthy. Most of all, take control of whatever it is that is making you unhealthy. If she can see you doing that, you will have done a good thing.

Of course, it is possible that her picky eating is not related to your weight at all. Some children simply are picky eaters. The best way to counter that is to eat as a family, to prepare healthy meals that always include something you know she will like without explicitly catering to her, and eliminating altogether any conversation about her eating habits. That just becomes negative attention. To keep yourself from worrying too much about what she eats, look at her intake in terms of weekly consumption, not daily.

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.



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14 comments so far...
  1. Two hours a day of TV for a 5 year old? Seriously?

    We are not a well society if we think two hours of TV for a 5 year old is somehow a restricted or limited amount of time to be staring at a screen.

    Other than that, the advice is good. But really -- a 5 year old has no need for 2 hours of TV a day (or video games, or whatever screen time there is at the house). That's insane.

    Posted by jlen March 4, 10 08:32 AM
  1. I believe the 2 hrs a day comes from the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation - and it's an average. I can see how it can happen if kids are home all day rather than in school/daycare. I think the big key is not just watching but being exposed to tv that many hours. If families watch tv while they eat, or it's constantly on in the background, that counts into the time 'watched'.

    My 4 1/2 year old went through a phase of saying that she was fat and not liking clothes because she thought they made her look fat! We were so shocked and bothered by this, but tried not to make a big deal out of it her. It turned out that two things contributed to it. One was a male teacher who was somewhat overweight and constantly joked about it - I am so fat, look at my big belly etc. Thankfully he is no longer her teacher. The other was a not-so-charming little girl in her class who liked to go around telling the kids that they were fat, or their clothes were ugly or what have you. Once the teachers figured out what this little girl was saying they were really watching for it and did some pretty focused work on appropriate words to use with our friends etc. Since that time this issue has pretty much disappeared. It was however a wake up call for what we might be dealing with in the future.

    Posted by Anonymous March 4, 10 10:09 AM
  1. Oddly enough the one question never asked/answered is "Is she?" Maybe she has a realistic self image!

    Posted by randybos March 4, 10 10:29 AM
  1. I agree with Randybos. She may also get it from hearing overweight adults around her making comments about their own bodies. It's sad that a child at this age would be overweight and even more sad that she would feel badly about herself. 2 hours a day of TV if broken up is not "insane" get a grip jlen.

    Posted by mo March 4, 10 10:44 AM
  1. Totally agree with Barbara's answer: if your 5-year-old is calling herself "Fat", it's because she is regularly hearing these kinds of statements made by people around her. Take a close look at what you and your family say about weight and self-image, and perhaps explore with daycare, teachers, etc. where she could be getting this from.

    Moms who put yourselves down? Please remember that you're teaching your daughters that they should hate themselves. Repeat it to yourself in your head every time you feel tempted to make a self-loathing sort of remark: "I am teaching my daughter how to feel about herself."

    Posted by Amanda March 4, 10 12:19 PM
  1. Is that you mom? :-)

    I was the classic picky eater, a string bean among pumpkins. Both my parents, my sister, and almost all of my 9 aunts and uncles are or have been overweight or obese. It's genetics. I think the only reason I escaped it is that I decided at age 6 that I hated meat, and stopped eating it. I am still a vegetarian 30 years later. It drove my mom nuts for quite a while. But then she decided she was fed up with fighting and said "I am making x for dinner. You can eat it, you can fill up on the vegetable side dishes, or you can starve. Your choice." I chose the middle selection, and obviously did not starve. I do struggle with weight issues now as an adult, but I have never gotten as out of control as my relatives. I attribute this to having learned to listen to my body and my hunger as a child, instead of being told what I should eat and what I should look like.

    Posted by bms March 4, 10 12:20 PM
  1. Bms-There are alot of picky eaters out there and that can be a struggle for parents, however, this child’s situation seems far more serious, she doesn't want to eat because she thinks she is fat. This, unfortunately, is an issue that usually arises with pre-teen and teen girls, if not beyond, but I would hope that most 5 year olds have at least 6- 10 years before these thoughts enter their minds. At this age they should be focused on school, learning, and playing. Their stress should be that they can’t find a missing puzzle piece, not that they have a too much belly fat. I am hoping that the age isn’t getting younger and younger, it’s not fair to these girls. It’s not really fair at any age actually. I wish people would be happy with what they look like and not have to compare themselves to others. As long as you are healthy and YOU feel good about yourself that is all that matters. As long as children are being brought up with healthy lifestyle choices, weight shouldn’t be an issue for a 5 year old! Of course no one is perfect, fast food and junk food may be an occasional thing, but make up for it by having healthy snack and meal choices the rest of the time. Get outside as much as possible, go for walks, dance around the house! Your child probably won’t even realize how healthy and active they are!

    Posted by mo March 4, 10 12:59 PM
  1. This can happen at ages even younger than 5. My son has an obese father who has tried to lose weight, but I think he talks about it way too much. My poor kid thinks that he shouldn't eat donuts because it'll make him fat. He's constantly asking us "Daddy's a lot fat?" "Mommy, you're not fat?" and to my boyfriend "You're a little fat?"

    I really try to drill it in his head that it's important to eat healthy, but that snacks, if consumed in moderation, will not make him fat. He started this at age 3 (maybe a little before his 3rd birthday).

    Posted by bunbuns March 4, 10 01:27 PM
  1. I almost could not continue this article once I read 2 hours of screen time per day as advice from a parenting consultant. What kind of credibility can she have if that's her advice? Could she have meant 2 hours per week?

    Posted by Paula Driscoll March 4, 10 01:29 PM
  1. No question, I remember being 4 or 5-ish and saying that I was fat and dieting - 100% because my mother, whom at that time I considered the most radiant, beautiful, perfect person in the world constantly critiqued herself, said she was fat and refused food. My mom is 5'2" and has never cracked 115 lbs. She wasn't fat and neither was I, but for 30 years I've looked in the mirror and said the same thing.

    It's interesting that there's another BG article about parents and plastic surgery. I hope every parent takes a moment to realize that to your children, you are beautiful, and the best thing you can do for them is appreciate that.

    Q

    Posted by Q March 4, 10 03:01 PM
  1. I am overweight and constantly critiquing myself, but I keep it TO myself (or to a couple of adult friends). The reason? I don't want weight to be an issue or obsession with our own daughter as she develops. And Q, thank you so much for that beautiful reminder. I know that my mom was the most beautiful person in the world when I was little, even though now I know she probably didn't feel that way.

    Posted by Phe March 4, 10 03:23 PM
  1. I wondered what Randybos wondered. Could this 5 year old have other little kids telling her she is fat? I certainly hope not, but I know it happens and it only gets worse as kids get older. The mom needs to find out if that is happening.

    Posted by poppy609 March 4, 10 04:09 PM
  1. Take her to a doctor to see if she really is fat. Most Americans have a distorted sense of what constitutes a healthy weight, setting it much higher than medical science has found to be healthy.

    Maybe she really is fat, maybe she is not.

    BTW, for a 5 year old it should be 2 hours of TV a WEEK not 2 hours a day -- and only kids' shows.

    Posted by m March 4, 10 06:21 PM
  1. wow- so much judgement from so many people who know nothing about this little girl - no wonder she's got issues. As for the messages she is getting, they're coming from all sides: family, "friends", the media, maybe just a snotty kid on the playground. Face it, we burden our little girls with the Disney Princess dream from the second they escape the womb. I would hate to a young girl growing up in this jungle, you have to be thin, smart, pretty, athletic, sexy, polite and then deal with all the other girls who are being driven by the same impossible standards. No wonder some of them turn on each other like jackals.

    Posted by ams March 4, 10 10:57 PM
 
14 comments so far...
  1. Two hours a day of TV for a 5 year old? Seriously?

    We are not a well society if we think two hours of TV for a 5 year old is somehow a restricted or limited amount of time to be staring at a screen.

    Other than that, the advice is good. But really -- a 5 year old has no need for 2 hours of TV a day (or video games, or whatever screen time there is at the house). That's insane.

    Posted by jlen March 4, 10 08:32 AM
  1. I believe the 2 hrs a day comes from the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation - and it's an average. I can see how it can happen if kids are home all day rather than in school/daycare. I think the big key is not just watching but being exposed to tv that many hours. If families watch tv while they eat, or it's constantly on in the background, that counts into the time 'watched'.

    My 4 1/2 year old went through a phase of saying that she was fat and not liking clothes because she thought they made her look fat! We were so shocked and bothered by this, but tried not to make a big deal out of it her. It turned out that two things contributed to it. One was a male teacher who was somewhat overweight and constantly joked about it - I am so fat, look at my big belly etc. Thankfully he is no longer her teacher. The other was a not-so-charming little girl in her class who liked to go around telling the kids that they were fat, or their clothes were ugly or what have you. Once the teachers figured out what this little girl was saying they were really watching for it and did some pretty focused work on appropriate words to use with our friends etc. Since that time this issue has pretty much disappeared. It was however a wake up call for what we might be dealing with in the future.

    Posted by Anonymous March 4, 10 10:09 AM
  1. Oddly enough the one question never asked/answered is "Is she?" Maybe she has a realistic self image!

    Posted by randybos March 4, 10 10:29 AM
  1. I agree with Randybos. She may also get it from hearing overweight adults around her making comments about their own bodies. It's sad that a child at this age would be overweight and even more sad that she would feel badly about herself. 2 hours a day of TV if broken up is not "insane" get a grip jlen.

    Posted by mo March 4, 10 10:44 AM
  1. Totally agree with Barbara's answer: if your 5-year-old is calling herself "Fat", it's because she is regularly hearing these kinds of statements made by people around her. Take a close look at what you and your family say about weight and self-image, and perhaps explore with daycare, teachers, etc. where she could be getting this from.

    Moms who put yourselves down? Please remember that you're teaching your daughters that they should hate themselves. Repeat it to yourself in your head every time you feel tempted to make a self-loathing sort of remark: "I am teaching my daughter how to feel about herself."

    Posted by Amanda March 4, 10 12:19 PM
  1. Is that you mom? :-)

    I was the classic picky eater, a string bean among pumpkins. Both my parents, my sister, and almost all of my 9 aunts and uncles are or have been overweight or obese. It's genetics. I think the only reason I escaped it is that I decided at age 6 that I hated meat, and stopped eating it. I am still a vegetarian 30 years later. It drove my mom nuts for quite a while. But then she decided she was fed up with fighting and said "I am making x for dinner. You can eat it, you can fill up on the vegetable side dishes, or you can starve. Your choice." I chose the middle selection, and obviously did not starve. I do struggle with weight issues now as an adult, but I have never gotten as out of control as my relatives. I attribute this to having learned to listen to my body and my hunger as a child, instead of being told what I should eat and what I should look like.

    Posted by bms March 4, 10 12:20 PM
  1. Bms-There are alot of picky eaters out there and that can be a struggle for parents, however, this child’s situation seems far more serious, she doesn't want to eat because she thinks she is fat. This, unfortunately, is an issue that usually arises with pre-teen and teen girls, if not beyond, but I would hope that most 5 year olds have at least 6- 10 years before these thoughts enter their minds. At this age they should be focused on school, learning, and playing. Their stress should be that they can’t find a missing puzzle piece, not that they have a too much belly fat. I am hoping that the age isn’t getting younger and younger, it’s not fair to these girls. It’s not really fair at any age actually. I wish people would be happy with what they look like and not have to compare themselves to others. As long as you are healthy and YOU feel good about yourself that is all that matters. As long as children are being brought up with healthy lifestyle choices, weight shouldn’t be an issue for a 5 year old! Of course no one is perfect, fast food and junk food may be an occasional thing, but make up for it by having healthy snack and meal choices the rest of the time. Get outside as much as possible, go for walks, dance around the house! Your child probably won’t even realize how healthy and active they are!

    Posted by mo March 4, 10 12:59 PM
  1. This can happen at ages even younger than 5. My son has an obese father who has tried to lose weight, but I think he talks about it way too much. My poor kid thinks that he shouldn't eat donuts because it'll make him fat. He's constantly asking us "Daddy's a lot fat?" "Mommy, you're not fat?" and to my boyfriend "You're a little fat?"

    I really try to drill it in his head that it's important to eat healthy, but that snacks, if consumed in moderation, will not make him fat. He started this at age 3 (maybe a little before his 3rd birthday).

    Posted by bunbuns March 4, 10 01:27 PM
  1. I almost could not continue this article once I read 2 hours of screen time per day as advice from a parenting consultant. What kind of credibility can she have if that's her advice? Could she have meant 2 hours per week?

    Posted by Paula Driscoll March 4, 10 01:29 PM
  1. No question, I remember being 4 or 5-ish and saying that I was fat and dieting - 100% because my mother, whom at that time I considered the most radiant, beautiful, perfect person in the world constantly critiqued herself, said she was fat and refused food. My mom is 5'2" and has never cracked 115 lbs. She wasn't fat and neither was I, but for 30 years I've looked in the mirror and said the same thing.

    It's interesting that there's another BG article about parents and plastic surgery. I hope every parent takes a moment to realize that to your children, you are beautiful, and the best thing you can do for them is appreciate that.

    Q

    Posted by Q March 4, 10 03:01 PM
  1. I am overweight and constantly critiquing myself, but I keep it TO myself (or to a couple of adult friends). The reason? I don't want weight to be an issue or obsession with our own daughter as she develops. And Q, thank you so much for that beautiful reminder. I know that my mom was the most beautiful person in the world when I was little, even though now I know she probably didn't feel that way.

    Posted by Phe March 4, 10 03:23 PM
  1. I wondered what Randybos wondered. Could this 5 year old have other little kids telling her she is fat? I certainly hope not, but I know it happens and it only gets worse as kids get older. The mom needs to find out if that is happening.

    Posted by poppy609 March 4, 10 04:09 PM
  1. Take her to a doctor to see if she really is fat. Most Americans have a distorted sense of what constitutes a healthy weight, setting it much higher than medical science has found to be healthy.

    Maybe she really is fat, maybe she is not.

    BTW, for a 5 year old it should be 2 hours of TV a WEEK not 2 hours a day -- and only kids' shows.

    Posted by m March 4, 10 06:21 PM
  1. wow- so much judgement from so many people who know nothing about this little girl - no wonder she's got issues. As for the messages she is getting, they're coming from all sides: family, "friends", the media, maybe just a snotty kid on the playground. Face it, we burden our little girls with the Disney Princess dream from the second they escape the womb. I would hate to a young girl growing up in this jungle, you have to be thin, smart, pretty, athletic, sexy, polite and then deal with all the other girls who are being driven by the same impossible standards. No wonder some of them turn on each other like jackals.

    Posted by ams March 4, 10 10:57 PM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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