As a psychologist who works with many families of adolescents, I recommend very few hard and fast rules to parents. After all, one of the most important traits of an excellent parent is flexibility. There is, however, one rule that I think makes sense about 99% of the time. I have reached this conclusion because of countless comments from adolescent girls, and a few boys as well, such as this one:
The only reasonable conclusion is that the more I weigh, the less my mother loves me, so if I want her to love me more, I have to weigh less. (Eliza, age 17)
Eliza, like many girls her age, was very sensitive about her weight despite the fact that she was a beautiful girl, inside and out. She was a three-sport athlete and a good student. She was well-liked by peers, teachers, and coaches. Her weight was at the high end of the normal range for her 5’8″ frame, and it was the bane of her existence. As such, she was a chronic dieter and her weight fluctuated frequently five pounds in either direction. Because of her own insecurity about her appearance, she was very sensitive to comments about her weight.
Eliza’s mom, a very fit and very petite woman, felt badly for her daughter. She believed that Eliza would be happier and like herself more if she could lose weight and get in better shape. When she saw her daughter lying around the house, she would encourage her to get some exercise. When Eliza prepared herself a snack, her mom would comment on the food selection or portion size. Nothing Eliza’s mother said was overtly critical, and her only motivation was to support Eliza’s stated desire to be thinner. But, kids don’t always take what parents say at face value. What parents say is often filtered through many layers of self-doubt until it becomes compatible with the adolescent’s self-perception.
All this leads to the rare hard-and-fast rule which should almost never be broken: it is best not to comment on the weight, clothing size, or eating and exercise habits of adolescents.
Despite The Rule, it is important to influence the health behaviors of adolescents. As discussed in a previous post (Not the Fat One), modeling healthy eating and exercise habits is essential as is making exercise and healthy meals shared family activities. In addition, parents can have a lot of influence by virtue of the fact that they do the grocery shopping and negotiate boundaries on screen time (see Those %$#@ Screens). Further, parents can model acceptance of a wide range of body types by avoiding criticizing their own and other’s imperfections and by not perpetuating weight-related stereotypes.
Invariably, the girls who tell me in the privacy of my office that they wish their parents never said a word about their weight, their appearance, or their eating and exercise habits are the same girls who invite such comments by asking questions and making comments of their own. So many unpleasant interactions about weight start off with a question such as “Do I look fat in this bathing suit?” or “I don’t understand why I can’t lose weight.” Even when such invitations are offered, I still advise parents to follow The Rule. Instead of being pulled into commenting on their daughter’s (or son’s) weight, I encourage them to respond truthfully without getting into a discussion about weight-related topics. Or, whenever possible, not to respond at all. For example, in response to a do-I-look-fat question, Mom might say “You know I like that bathing suit on you; I helped you pick it out.” In response to a comment such as “I don’t understand why I can’t lose weight,” good old reflective listening (see Inside My Head) is a parent’s best bet and might sound like “You are frustrated because losing weight is so hard.”
Fortunately, for the majority of girls, this insecurity about their bodies is a developmental phenomenon. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the overconcern about weight fades away and is replaced by a healthier focus on nutrition and fitness rather than thinness. When this happens, girls and boys who have learned healthy eating and exercise habits and for whom food has not become a battleground with parents will become young women and men who are much more accepting of their own bodies and will stop aspiring to an unhealthy and unrealistic ideal.
Occasionally in my practice, I have the opportunity to find out how one of my young clients is doing as an adult. This happened recently with Eliza who is now a confident and ambitious law school graduate about to start her first job. She came in to see me for a few sessions during her job search because she was having trouble maintaining her motivation through the long and difficult search process. She is still just as beautiful, inside and out, still 5’8″ and at the higher end of the healthy weight range for her height. But, there is none of that insecurity that burdened her as a teenager and caused so much conflict with her mother. When asked about that period in her life, she responded, “Oh that? I really don’t give a hoot anymore. I feel good about myself.”
[Names and all potentially identifying information have been changed.]