9-year-old thinks she's fat

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  April 15, 2010 06:00 AM

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Barbara, My 9-year-old daughter thinks she is fat. I didn't think anything of it for a couple months until recently. She refuses to go back to gymnastics because she thinks people are staring at her. She has come home from school saying that girls are saying things to her about her clothes and that they are for fat people. I am very afraid that this may get worse and eventually she won't want to go anywhere. She will not wear her bathing suit anymore and walks around putting her hands over her stomach. I don't know what to do, and she cries a lot about what people are saying.

From: Holly, Middleville

Hi Holly,

Handling these issues of body image, whether for girls or boys, is downright scary for parents. One wrong word, and we've doomed our child to an eating disorder! Here are a few points to consider:

1. In pre-puberty, girls tend to gain a few pounds
prior to a growth spurt and they just see it as, "I'm fat." If this is happening to her, don't pretend it's not. The worst you can do is  deny or dismiss her feelings even if the weight gain isn't. And if it is, better to acknowledge it: "I don't see it, I think you have a great body, but girls' bodies do start to change at this age. Many bodies gain weight before they gain height, which makes it all even out." 

2. Girls this age can be brutally mean to each othe
r. They all are going through variations of this body change, they all want to fit in and they all feel physically awkward, ugly and/or fat. Take a good look at her clothes vis a vis her age mates: Are they too little girly? I'm not suggesting she dress like a vamp (these days, that's all too easy to accomplish), but girls do need to fit in. Does she need a wardrobe adjustment? A few new things to make her feel she fits in socially?

About the bathing suit, let it go: "If you don't want to swim anymore, that's OK. I hate to think of all the fun you'll miss this summer, but it's your decision." She will change her mind some day, meanwhile, make it easier on both of you. 

About the teasing, brainstorm with her to come up with some coping mechanisms, or some comebacks, including, "I like my body just the way it is."
 
3. Help her to find another physical activity. There is no reason she has to stay with gymnastics if she isn't enjoying it. Tell her, "Exercise is such an important part of staying healthy, I really want that for you. Let's investigate other activities and see if there's something else you'll enjoy more." The chance to start over with a new set of kids could be liberating.

Everything I've talked about so far is within the range of normal for girls this age. The best way for you to handle it is sympathetically & matter-of-factly but not in a way that says you feel sorry for her. But there may be something else going on here.

I ran your question past Ellyn Satter, an internationally recognized psychologist who has pioneered the understanding between relationships and eating.

"Putting her hands over her stomach and crying about what people say could be an attention-getting device," Satter said. "This sounds to me like it could be a neglected kid who has hit on something that gets her mother's attention."

It's a fine line between being responsive and being preoccupied. A preoccupation can reinforce her behavior. If you think you might be doing this, find other ways for her to get your attention, including having "Mom Tiime," where you set aside designated time each day to do something pleasant together even if it's only sitting in the same room, each reading a book. When you shut off your phone and shut out anyone else who may demand your attention,  you're sending a powerful message to a child that often negates her need to get your attention in negative ways.

This goes hand in hand with something else that Satter always asks parents: "Do you like your child's body? Can you honestly say to your child, 'I like your body just the way it is?'" If you can't, she said, you need to deal with whatever issues you have about what's the "right" body for your child. Satter says that adults who are most hung up on weight  issues had parents who were preoccupied with their own weight and with their child's. I recommend Satter's book, "Your child's weight, helping without harming."

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


This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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11 comments so far...
  1. Everything above is really good advice. I do want to ask, though -- is she actually overweight? Childhood obesity is on the rise and far more common than it once was. I almost hate to talk about this because I firmly believe our society pressures girls too much to look a certain way, and it causes a lot of turmoil for girls, who believe they are fat just because they are not as (unrealistically) skinny as the girls they see in magazines, TV, etc.

    But it is important to assess whether she actually is overweight -- not by looking at her and judging how she looks, but by talking to her pediatrician. If her doctor says she is a healthy weight, then wonderful. If she is overweight, there may be changes you can make -- changes in the foods you buy and the snacks you have around the house, for example. No need to bring it to your daughter's attention (she is already feeling bad enough, clearly) but having healthy snacks, and no soda or chips, etc., could make a big difference, especially if she continues to be physically active. And again, please ignore all of this if her "fat" is completely in her head, as it very well may be.

    Posted by jlen April 15, 10 08:57 AM
  1. I agree with the suggestion to try a different activity with a different set of kids from those in her class and in gymnastics, perhaps in a neighboring town. I think karate or another martial art would be a good choice -respect for others is highly valued and the uniforms are not form fitting.

    Posted by Cordelia April 15, 10 12:15 PM
  1. I was thinking the same as jlen. My kids go to gymnastics and I really hate to admit it, but there are definitely quite a few kids there that are a bit bigger than they probably should be for their ages. But at the same time I absolutely applaud them for taking on a healthy activity like gymnastics. I can't imagine what I'll do in a few years as my daughter gets older, but I'm sure I'll be facing these same issues at that time. I also like the martial arts suggestion. I've known many adults that have slimmed dramatically from that activity. And boosting confidence at this age would be a great bonus. Good luck!!

    Posted by amom April 15, 10 01:03 PM
  1. I was going to suggest martial arts as well. Uniforms aren't form fitting and does a lot for kid's confidence.

    Posted by momof2 April 15, 10 02:22 PM
  1. I am actually having the same issue with my 9 year old. My daughter is swimming at her after school program and the first time was a week ago. She called me at work because I "forgot" to pack a shirt to go over her 2 piece bathingsuit (both the top and bottom meet). I did accomadate her and bring the shirt. I decided while they were on spring break to get her a new one that was a one piece. Tonight was her day to swim. I received another call at work that she wanted a pair of shorts to go over her new suit. I told her that I wouldn't be bringing them to her that she was either going to swim without them or not swim at all. She decided to not swim. I went to the school to pick her up and asked her to try her new suit on (I thought it may be baggy in the crotch area and that's was the need for shorts). It was actually because she thought that her thighs looked too big. I have to say I do not think she is "chubby" in any way. She is 9 and wears a size 10, sometimes a 12. I just don't know what to do for her other than to tell her she is beautiful just the way she is. Does anyone have any suggestions for this?

    Posted by Mabellene April 15, 10 04:29 PM
  1. I blame the gymnastics. Gymnastics, ballet - these activities produce disordered eating in a huge percentage of girls. We've all heard horror stories about how, at higher levels, it's actually the coaches/teachers who emphasize the need to be thin to be successful. Regardless of whether she is actually overweight, she is clearly showing signs that she is susceptible to the pressure on gymnasts to be tiny. Don't mess around with this - get her involved in a different sport.

    Posted by Q April 15, 10 04:37 PM
  1. When it comes to the weight of child's body, parents need to understand that the children growing up day have already been violated by to much focus on there bodies. In the old days a child's health was the responsibility of the pediatrician. Unfortunately, with children, they don't always know what a healthy weight is. It understandable that they feel like people are looking at them. The schools look at them, the pshychologist look at them, the first lady looks at them. Many children as any smart person knows of normal weight can go to an age where they have a little belly fat, that disapears in there height. In addition every educated person knows, that a girl in puberty my have a minor weight gain, at fifteen. All people know how children are sexualized in our society. Yes there are minority, who
    before the war against obeisity were only slightly overweight. Yes parents know that we live in bully world, a cruel world, of mean adults and children. Yes, sadly more attention has to be given to your child looking perfect, to protect the child from the brutal people, that already phychologically violated the privacy and respect of the body of the america child. Even when a child has a physical obeisity problem, it should be the center of class room discussion. It is not parent faught that child who is normal weight but not anorexia weight feels bad about themselves. It reminds
    of the phychotic mother dearest, in the way this country attacts health issues and children. So sad, because I remember having a little belly, about many years ago at age eleven and guess what I was the skinniest girl in the class. I don't fix this. Maybe one day, adults will mature. When they do they will children will have the opportunity again, to be children and experience joy within.

    Posted by sally April 16, 10 09:15 AM
  1. Let's focus on this sentence in the letter "she cries about what people are saying" . Calling normal children "fat" is a common form of bullying. So is harassing classmates for wearing different kinds of clothing.

    The child is making it clear with her body language "hands over her stomach" that she is being bullied at school and is afraid of telling all the details.

    The concerned parent needs to sit down and ask"what else are the kids saying to you" and patiently get all the facts--statements, when and where they are made, the group making them. The concerned parent then needs to follow this up with the school IN WRITING.

    Posted by Irene April 16, 10 09:44 AM
  1. Are there any relatives you are aware of who suffer from eating disorders? Eating disorders are highly hereditary and typically begin as a result of intense preoccupation with weight. There is a very helpful organization in the area (Newton) who can help identify real eating issues, they can be found online at medainc.org (Multi-Sevice Eating Disorders Assoc.). From your limited information it would be hard to know if these were some beginning signs of an eating disorder, but the most successful treatment if this is the case is early recognition and intense treatment. For anyone who suspects an eating disorders AT ALL, your best defense is education and early action. Eating disorders are incredibly difficult to address and treat once they become set behaviors. Good luck.

    Posted by Gimmeedaball April 19, 10 09:15 AM
  1. I just recently started reading your blog and have enjoyed the discussions.
    I have 3 teen-aged children and I'm currently working towards a master's
    degree in applied nutrition and think that online discussions provide a
    great venue for well-thought out thoughts and ideas. I just finished up a
    class on eating disorders a few weeks ago and wanted to comment on your post
    regarding the 9 year-old girl who thinks she is fat. You stated, "One wrong
    word, and we've doomed our child to an eating disorder!". I suspect you may
    have meant to be facetious but my concern is that for parents who are
    dealing with children with real eating disorders, there is an inaccurate
    belief that they've actually caused their child's problem. This is no
    longer the accepted thinking on how or why a child acquires an eating
    disorder. Parents are not seen as having "caused" the disorder and in fact,
    are looked at by the treatment team in many cases as the child's best shot
    at successful recovery. There are many useful websites if you're interested
    in looking at this philosophy, in particular, I think you'd like Laura
    Collins', "Eating with your anorexic" website: http://www.eatingwithyouranorexic.com/welcome.html. She writes for
    parents mostly, and has done a short video interview with the several eating
    disorders experts from around the world. The video clip can be viewed on
    youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wE3fyQV_chI

    Thanks for your work an keep up the good fight!

    Posted by Mary Fitzgerald April 19, 10 11:43 AM
  1. You did a great job with answering this difficult question. Clearly, this mother's question hit a nerve with other parents as well. I hope I didn't say "neglected," but if I did, I apologize. All kids strive for attention and will get as much as they can. In today's busy world, all kids benefit from one-on-one attention with each of their parents on a regular basis--so can parents!
    The comments reminded me that kids contribute to their own dilemmas, as well. Putting her hands over her stomach, wearing coverups to disguise her body, standing in a self-hiding posture--all tell potential teasers, "kick me."

    Posted by Ellyn Satter April 25, 10 10:07 AM
 
11 comments so far...
  1. Everything above is really good advice. I do want to ask, though -- is she actually overweight? Childhood obesity is on the rise and far more common than it once was. I almost hate to talk about this because I firmly believe our society pressures girls too much to look a certain way, and it causes a lot of turmoil for girls, who believe they are fat just because they are not as (unrealistically) skinny as the girls they see in magazines, TV, etc.

    But it is important to assess whether she actually is overweight -- not by looking at her and judging how she looks, but by talking to her pediatrician. If her doctor says she is a healthy weight, then wonderful. If she is overweight, there may be changes you can make -- changes in the foods you buy and the snacks you have around the house, for example. No need to bring it to your daughter's attention (she is already feeling bad enough, clearly) but having healthy snacks, and no soda or chips, etc., could make a big difference, especially if she continues to be physically active. And again, please ignore all of this if her "fat" is completely in her head, as it very well may be.

    Posted by jlen April 15, 10 08:57 AM
  1. I agree with the suggestion to try a different activity with a different set of kids from those in her class and in gymnastics, perhaps in a neighboring town. I think karate or another martial art would be a good choice -respect for others is highly valued and the uniforms are not form fitting.

    Posted by Cordelia April 15, 10 12:15 PM
  1. I was thinking the same as jlen. My kids go to gymnastics and I really hate to admit it, but there are definitely quite a few kids there that are a bit bigger than they probably should be for their ages. But at the same time I absolutely applaud them for taking on a healthy activity like gymnastics. I can't imagine what I'll do in a few years as my daughter gets older, but I'm sure I'll be facing these same issues at that time. I also like the martial arts suggestion. I've known many adults that have slimmed dramatically from that activity. And boosting confidence at this age would be a great bonus. Good luck!!

    Posted by amom April 15, 10 01:03 PM
  1. I was going to suggest martial arts as well. Uniforms aren't form fitting and does a lot for kid's confidence.

    Posted by momof2 April 15, 10 02:22 PM
  1. I am actually having the same issue with my 9 year old. My daughter is swimming at her after school program and the first time was a week ago. She called me at work because I "forgot" to pack a shirt to go over her 2 piece bathingsuit (both the top and bottom meet). I did accomadate her and bring the shirt. I decided while they were on spring break to get her a new one that was a one piece. Tonight was her day to swim. I received another call at work that she wanted a pair of shorts to go over her new suit. I told her that I wouldn't be bringing them to her that she was either going to swim without them or not swim at all. She decided to not swim. I went to the school to pick her up and asked her to try her new suit on (I thought it may be baggy in the crotch area and that's was the need for shorts). It was actually because she thought that her thighs looked too big. I have to say I do not think she is "chubby" in any way. She is 9 and wears a size 10, sometimes a 12. I just don't know what to do for her other than to tell her she is beautiful just the way she is. Does anyone have any suggestions for this?

    Posted by Mabellene April 15, 10 04:29 PM
  1. I blame the gymnastics. Gymnastics, ballet - these activities produce disordered eating in a huge percentage of girls. We've all heard horror stories about how, at higher levels, it's actually the coaches/teachers who emphasize the need to be thin to be successful. Regardless of whether she is actually overweight, she is clearly showing signs that she is susceptible to the pressure on gymnasts to be tiny. Don't mess around with this - get her involved in a different sport.

    Posted by Q April 15, 10 04:37 PM
  1. When it comes to the weight of child's body, parents need to understand that the children growing up day have already been violated by to much focus on there bodies. In the old days a child's health was the responsibility of the pediatrician. Unfortunately, with children, they don't always know what a healthy weight is. It understandable that they feel like people are looking at them. The schools look at them, the pshychologist look at them, the first lady looks at them. Many children as any smart person knows of normal weight can go to an age where they have a little belly fat, that disapears in there height. In addition every educated person knows, that a girl in puberty my have a minor weight gain, at fifteen. All people know how children are sexualized in our society. Yes there are minority, who
    before the war against obeisity were only slightly overweight. Yes parents know that we live in bully world, a cruel world, of mean adults and children. Yes, sadly more attention has to be given to your child looking perfect, to protect the child from the brutal people, that already phychologically violated the privacy and respect of the body of the america child. Even when a child has a physical obeisity problem, it should be the center of class room discussion. It is not parent faught that child who is normal weight but not anorexia weight feels bad about themselves. It reminds
    of the phychotic mother dearest, in the way this country attacts health issues and children. So sad, because I remember having a little belly, about many years ago at age eleven and guess what I was the skinniest girl in the class. I don't fix this. Maybe one day, adults will mature. When they do they will children will have the opportunity again, to be children and experience joy within.

    Posted by sally April 16, 10 09:15 AM
  1. Let's focus on this sentence in the letter "she cries about what people are saying" . Calling normal children "fat" is a common form of bullying. So is harassing classmates for wearing different kinds of clothing.

    The child is making it clear with her body language "hands over her stomach" that she is being bullied at school and is afraid of telling all the details.

    The concerned parent needs to sit down and ask"what else are the kids saying to you" and patiently get all the facts--statements, when and where they are made, the group making them. The concerned parent then needs to follow this up with the school IN WRITING.

    Posted by Irene April 16, 10 09:44 AM
  1. Are there any relatives you are aware of who suffer from eating disorders? Eating disorders are highly hereditary and typically begin as a result of intense preoccupation with weight. There is a very helpful organization in the area (Newton) who can help identify real eating issues, they can be found online at medainc.org (Multi-Sevice Eating Disorders Assoc.). From your limited information it would be hard to know if these were some beginning signs of an eating disorder, but the most successful treatment if this is the case is early recognition and intense treatment. For anyone who suspects an eating disorders AT ALL, your best defense is education and early action. Eating disorders are incredibly difficult to address and treat once they become set behaviors. Good luck.

    Posted by Gimmeedaball April 19, 10 09:15 AM
  1. I just recently started reading your blog and have enjoyed the discussions.
    I have 3 teen-aged children and I'm currently working towards a master's
    degree in applied nutrition and think that online discussions provide a
    great venue for well-thought out thoughts and ideas. I just finished up a
    class on eating disorders a few weeks ago and wanted to comment on your post
    regarding the 9 year-old girl who thinks she is fat. You stated, "One wrong
    word, and we've doomed our child to an eating disorder!". I suspect you may
    have meant to be facetious but my concern is that for parents who are
    dealing with children with real eating disorders, there is an inaccurate
    belief that they've actually caused their child's problem. This is no
    longer the accepted thinking on how or why a child acquires an eating
    disorder. Parents are not seen as having "caused" the disorder and in fact,
    are looked at by the treatment team in many cases as the child's best shot
    at successful recovery. There are many useful websites if you're interested
    in looking at this philosophy, in particular, I think you'd like Laura
    Collins', "Eating with your anorexic" website: http://www.eatingwithyouranorexic.com/welcome.html. She writes for
    parents mostly, and has done a short video interview with the several eating
    disorders experts from around the world. The video clip can be viewed on
    youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wE3fyQV_chI

    Thanks for your work an keep up the good fight!

    Posted by Mary Fitzgerald April 19, 10 11:43 AM
  1. You did a great job with answering this difficult question. Clearly, this mother's question hit a nerve with other parents as well. I hope I didn't say "neglected," but if I did, I apologize. All kids strive for attention and will get as much as they can. In today's busy world, all kids benefit from one-on-one attention with each of their parents on a regular basis--so can parents!
    The comments reminded me that kids contribute to their own dilemmas, as well. Putting her hands over her stomach, wearing coverups to disguise her body, standing in a self-hiding posture--all tell potential teasers, "kick me."

    Posted by Ellyn Satter April 25, 10 10:07 AM
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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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