I’ve got an 11 year-old daughter who struggles with overeating. I have no idea what to say to her to help her, as my mother and grandmother criticized me when I was about her age for eating too much food and gaining weight. My daughter is gaining lots of weight and I’m worried about her health, her self-image, and how all of this will affect her in the future. She hides her eating and makes self-critical comments. I feel like I have so many issues around food and my own weight that I can hardly bring up my concerns to her, fearing that I will damage her the way I feel I was damaged. I feel trapped and have no idea how to help her with all of this.
I’m thrilled you want to break the intergenerational pattern of shaming children around food and weight. Unfortunately, it’s likely that your own shame and anxiety around food and bodies is being transmitted loud and clear to your daughter. I don’t believe you’re doing this on purpose, as you were sent some pretty damaging messages when you were younger.
The good news is that you can help both of you challenge the fraudulent messages around weight and self-worth. While taking care of the body is good practice for everyone, allowing yourself or your daughter believe a certain weight or size means something about your value as a human being is something worth challenging.
First, I recommend you open up to your daughter about the impact these messages have had on you and on her. Don’t let her believe for one minute that she’s the only one feeling insecure with food and her body. Be real with your own struggles, but don’t overwhelm her and turn her into your emotional support and confidant. Approach her with the love and protectiveness of a parent who can relate to what it’s like to feel the pressure of your own and other’s expectations for how you should look.
Let her know that your job as her mom is to help her take care of her body so she can be as healthy as possible. In the same way you taught her how to clean her body, dress herself, and feed herself, you’re going to continue to help her care for herself in the best possible way.
Don’t avoid the obvious issue of her hiding food and having anxiety around her eating and weight. It will be uncomfortable for you to address this with her, but you will be doing it in a way that will support her instead of criticize her. While your mother and grandmother certainly recognized a challenge you were having, they didn’t know how to help you past that point. You can support your daughter in a way you were never supported.
Help her identify when she’s eating to fill her stomach and when she’s eating to fill her heart. In other words, ask her if she can tell the difference between eating because of the body’s natural desire to satisfy physical hunger and when she wants to cope with difficult emotions. You can help her identify those emotions, such as boredom, anxiety, fear, shame, etc. Validate the struggle she’s having and work together with her in a way that lets her know she can count on you to help her heal.
This isn’t about her losing weight and being a certain size. This is about her escaping the mood altering powerlessness of an addiction to food. Regardless of her size, she will regain her sense of confidence and strength as she understands how to take care of her emotions in a healthy way. Your connection to her will be the key ingredient.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.marriage-recovery.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic and currently serves on the high council of the St. George, Utah young single adult second stake. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
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