My 8½-year-old daughter is recently obsessed with her looks and that she is fat. She has stated that she thinks her arms, thighs, and stomach are fat, and her nose is too big. It has gotten so out of control that picking out clothes is a challenge. She wants to cover herself in clothes that are too big and is constantly crying. I don't know where I went wrong but dealing with this is becoming frustrating. The worst part about all of this is that she is thin and beautiful, and when you tell her that, she says it is not true! She plays multiple sports and is very good, but she's the one kid that thinks she does horrible and sometimes really out-performs her peers. Should I be concerned and get her some help? Is this a phase?
From: BizzyGal, Dallas
Most likely, this is a phase, but, brace yourself, it may last a while. The onset of puberty is happening at younger ages these days (better health care and better nutrition), often catching parents by surprise because we think of puberty as happening at the onset of menstruation. That's actually one of the last things to happen. Before then, there are all kinds of hormonal and physical changes.
Most professionals who work with girls in the 9-to-13-year-old range say this stage is like having a 2-year-old all over again: She's willful and unpredictable, sometimes clingy, other times fiercely independent. Just like a toddler, she's picking fights, especially with you. She's experimenting with what it's like to be her in the world; some days she's pretty sure of how she fits in, and other days she's struggling.
It's hard on a parent, even harder on the girl who wakes up in the morning, looks in the mirror, and sees a different body than the one she saw when she went to bed the night before. Those changes -- body hair, breast buds -- confuse and frighten. And the fat that she's claiming to see? It's probably real. Girls put on a little weight early in puberty. It's not a predictor of weight gain, rather it's a change in the body before weight redistributes. Tell her that; whatever you do, don't pooh-pooh her when she cries that she's getting fat.
Here's a response a professional once suggested for parents of girls this age: "When she tells you, 'I'm too fat,' come back with, 'It's not that you're fat, just that your body is changing. If you're worried about it, let's make sure you are eating foods that are healthy and nutritious and not adding empty calories.'"
Here's more from the column I wrote:
....what works best with preteen girls is a parenting style that is firm, warm, and supportive. Social psychologist Allena Elovson, whose specialty is parent-child relationships, gives an example:
"A girl with a small pimple on her face says she won't go to a party. The typical parent says, 'Oh, it's not so bad,' or 'That's the most ridiculous thing I ever heard.' "
The first response is false reassurance, the second dismissive. Neither is helpful. Instead, Elovson says, try empathy: "I know this bothers you, although it's not as noticeable as you think. Try my makeup to cover it up.''
As improbable as it sounds, Elovson insists that it's actually possible to strengthen the parent-child relationship during these years. Validating feelings is one way to do it. Here are some other strategies:
- Be straightforward. "Talk about how you feel about something, how her behavior affects you," says Elovson. "I'm not comfortable with you wearing lipstick to school."
- Seek out her feelings, let her know she counts.
- Don't be accusatory.
- Compromise. "Telling her she can't do something is not wise. She'll feel repressed and controlled," Elovson says. Instead: "How about if you just wear lipstick at home?"
- Look for ways to convey your values without threatening hers: "I was looking through this magazine and noticed how thin these models are. It makes me think there's a lot of pressure on girls your age about weight. Do you feel that?"
Click here to read the rest of that column.
As far as the clothes, don't get into it about clothes with her. One reason she's drawn to the baggy clothes and why that look is so popular among preteens is because it's a way for them to hide all the body changes -- from themselves and from peers. Let it go as much as you can; it's gonna change and when it does, you'll likely regret every complaining about the over-sized look.
My best advice: don't stop telling her she's beautiful, etc., but don't overdo it, either. Work hard at being a good listener and at reflecting back what she tells you, and think of this stage as an opportunity (to share information and values, to stay connected to her), rather than as a stage to suffer through.
Here are two books that might be helpful: "Period, A girl's guide," by JoAnn Loulan & Bonnie Worthen; and "Before she gets her period, Talking with your daughter about menstruation: by Jessica B. Gillooly.
I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.
The author is solely responsible for the content.