She's too young to think she's fat! Isn't she....?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  November 16, 2010 06:00 AM

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Hello!
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?
Thank you!

From: BizzyGal, Dallas

Hi BizzyGal,

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.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

4 comments so far...
  1. I bought my 8 year old daughter "Girlology's There's Something New About You - A Girl's Guide to Growing Up". It talks about the changes going on - both physical and emotional. She seems to like the empowerment to learn about changes on her own schedule.

    I wonder why Barbara seems to have glossed over the sports thing - I'm curious to know if that's a normal part of the emotional spectrum or not. Assuming it is, I suspect it will be more effective to point out specifics - "That was awesome when you got a breakaway and scored a goal" instead of "You played awesome today" - when trying to reassure her that she's not an awful player. Is she a perfectionist in her schoolwork, too? It may be that she had grand ideas of how a play should go, and since she couldn't execute it the way she imagined it, she thinks she's bad. It's worth asking her why she thinks she's such a bad player, I think. Good luck!

    Posted by akmom November 16, 10 06:43 AM
  1. The loose comfortable clothes make sense to lots of physically active kids. See Barbara's recent post about oversexed clothing.
    "Beautiful" may also carry connections to bad media messages. Tell her she is smart, capable, athletic as those words carry real meaning.

    Take the time to ask her whether there are discussions in class about gender specific roles. Don't assume that her teachers are giving the message that you want her to hear about how girls are as smart as boys.

    If the sports thing persists past 6 months, get advice about anxiety disorders. It can happen at this age and it's a problem. The most telling sign is if the child can't "see" improvement that comes with practise.

    Posted by Irene November 16, 10 10:00 AM
  1. I think girls feed into each others' anxieties. Her friends may all be having conversations about weight. And just to emphasize Barbara's parenthetical mention of values, if girls are very critical of one another, then they are also likely to be very critical of themselves. Talk to her about her relationships with her friends and how they treat one another and others outside their circle. If they criticize girls (openly or covertly) who aren't perfect, all more pressure to not become a target themselves, thus another reason to obsess about appearance. Family values that emphasize kindness, compassion, honesty, etc. may help diffuse preoccupation with appearance.

    Posted by chilly November 16, 10 05:20 PM
  1. Dear LW, please de-couple "thin" and "beautiful." The more your daughter hears you use those two words together, the more she'll believe that even if you think she is thin now, if she does gain weight, you won't think so anymore.

    Think hard about the messages she is getting from you, from the other people in her life, and in the television, movies, and books she is exposed to. Most likely, all of these messages say "Fat is bad." No wonder little girls, no matter what their body size, are afraid of fat. Make sure she knows YOU think that people are valuable and lovable, regardless of their body size or shape.

    Posted by Susan November 17, 10 10:19 AM
 
4 comments so far...
  1. I bought my 8 year old daughter "Girlology's There's Something New About You - A Girl's Guide to Growing Up". It talks about the changes going on - both physical and emotional. She seems to like the empowerment to learn about changes on her own schedule.

    I wonder why Barbara seems to have glossed over the sports thing - I'm curious to know if that's a normal part of the emotional spectrum or not. Assuming it is, I suspect it will be more effective to point out specifics - "That was awesome when you got a breakaway and scored a goal" instead of "You played awesome today" - when trying to reassure her that she's not an awful player. Is she a perfectionist in her schoolwork, too? It may be that she had grand ideas of how a play should go, and since she couldn't execute it the way she imagined it, she thinks she's bad. It's worth asking her why she thinks she's such a bad player, I think. Good luck!

    Posted by akmom November 16, 10 06:43 AM
  1. The loose comfortable clothes make sense to lots of physically active kids. See Barbara's recent post about oversexed clothing.
    "Beautiful" may also carry connections to bad media messages. Tell her she is smart, capable, athletic as those words carry real meaning.

    Take the time to ask her whether there are discussions in class about gender specific roles. Don't assume that her teachers are giving the message that you want her to hear about how girls are as smart as boys.

    If the sports thing persists past 6 months, get advice about anxiety disorders. It can happen at this age and it's a problem. The most telling sign is if the child can't "see" improvement that comes with practise.

    Posted by Irene November 16, 10 10:00 AM
  1. I think girls feed into each others' anxieties. Her friends may all be having conversations about weight. And just to emphasize Barbara's parenthetical mention of values, if girls are very critical of one another, then they are also likely to be very critical of themselves. Talk to her about her relationships with her friends and how they treat one another and others outside their circle. If they criticize girls (openly or covertly) who aren't perfect, all more pressure to not become a target themselves, thus another reason to obsess about appearance. Family values that emphasize kindness, compassion, honesty, etc. may help diffuse preoccupation with appearance.

    Posted by chilly November 16, 10 05:20 PM
  1. Dear LW, please de-couple "thin" and "beautiful." The more your daughter hears you use those two words together, the more she'll believe that even if you think she is thin now, if she does gain weight, you won't think so anymore.

    Think hard about the messages she is getting from you, from the other people in her life, and in the television, movies, and books she is exposed to. Most likely, all of these messages say "Fat is bad." No wonder little girls, no matter what their body size, are afraid of fat. Make sure she knows YOU think that people are valuable and lovable, regardless of their body size or shape.

    Posted by Susan November 17, 10 10:19 AM
add your comment
Required
Required (will not be published)

This blogger might want to review your comment before posting it.

About the author

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.

Submit a question for Barbara's Mailbag


Ask Barbara a question

Barbara answers questions on a wide range of topics, including autism, breastfeeding, bullying, discipline, divorce, kindergarten, potty training, sleep, tantrums, and much, much more.

Send your questions to her at:
meltzbarbara (at) gmail.com.
Please include your name and hometown.

Child in Mind

Moms
All parenting discussions
Discussions

High needs/fussy baby

memes98 writes "My 10.5 month old DS has been fussy ever since he was born, but I am getting very frustrated because I thought he would be much better by now...has anyone else been through this?"

More community voices

Child in Mind

Corner Kicks

Dirty Old Boston

Mortal Matters

On Deck

TEDx Beacon Street

RSS feed


click here to subscribe to
Child Caring

archives