My daughter thinks she’s fat. Should I be concerned?

Children learn at an early age to be aware of their weight. They see thin celebrities on TV and in the movies, and they look at ads for weight loss programs. They hear their gymnastics or wrestling coach urge them to slim down. They hear their parents talk about dieting or say, “Don’t eat too much or you’ll get fat,” and it becomes clear that thinness matters.

Many girls describe themselves as overweight: “I look so fat in this outfit.” “There’s so much flab on my legs!” “I hate the way I look!” Often a child with a good self-image says such things to receive a compliment or be reassured: “What are you worried about? You’re so skinny.” “I wish I were as thin as you are. You look great!”

Sometimes she truly believes she’s overweight even though her parents are convinced that she isn’t. Parents have to evaluate her statements about weight, especially once she reaches twelve or thirteen. Some kids these ages become so obsessed with “being fat” that their self-image suffers and they risk developing an eating disorder.

While it’s natural for your child to pay attention to her changing body, try to keep her from dwelling on weight and appearance. Also keep her from dramatically altering her diet. Talking will help: “You seem to believe you’re overweight and I’m trying to figure out why. Do your friends feel the same way about themselves?” Discuss physical development and body shapes as well as healthy eating, but don’t lectures or she’ll stop listening.

Focus on her interests and strengths. She may be less concerned about her body if her time is spent on enjoyable or challenging activities. Encourage her to pursue hobbies or sports. Help her get involved in volunteer work, art classes, a school club, rearranging her room, caring for a pet, or learning a new skill.

Examine your own eating habits and attempts to lose weight. If there’s too much emphasis on dieting at home, your child may be influenced in a negative way. Be less open when discussing your weight, put out fewer magazines with dieting articles, and show her, by your example, how to eat and exercise in a healthy way.

She may be concentrating on weight as a way of dealing with stress. She might find it easier to worry about being fat than to think about other problems. Try to find out if something is bothering her. Does she do well in school? Does she get enough attention at home? Does she get along reasonably well with her siblings? Does she have conflicts with friends? Can she occupy herself when she’s alone? If you can help eliminate some pressures in her life, her self-image will improve. This, in turn, should lessen her preoccupation with weight.

Make it clear that you love her as she is and offer reassurance if she seems to need it. She may feel comforted to hear, “No, you’re not fat.” However, it’s possible your words of praise and love will have little effect. If she genuinely believes she’s overweight, she’ll continue to see herself that way.

If your child is ten or eleven and talks about being too heavy, keep a watchful eye on her. If she’s older, take her repeated complaints or changes in eating habits seriously. It’s better to start dealing with the issue now because weight will continue to matter to her throughout adolescence (and adulthood). The older your child gets, the harder it may be to help her accept herself. If you’re really worried, you might want to talk to a counselor or take your child to a nutritionist. A professional can often prevent serious eating problems and help your child view herself more realistically.

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