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Preteen Girls: Weight and Healthy Body Image

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My 12 year old daughter's weight for height puts her in the 90th percentile. It seems that she wants to eat all the time. When we are out she wants to stop and get fast food even though we ate at home recently. She is active in sports at school like basketball and softball. I myself have always struggled with weight and I don't want to say the wrong things to her that might trigger an eating disorder or harm her self esteem.


You're asking the million dollar question for moms of tween girls, which I will rephrase as: How do I help my emerging teen develop healthy habits that will keep her new womanly body fit, without harming her self esteem, contributing to the formation of an eating disorder, or burdening her with my own longtime body/weight/food issues?

1. Focus on fitness, not looks. Telling her to keep active so that she's attractive just encourages the self-objectification that underlies eating disorders. Instead, encourage daily physical activity so she stays fit. That your daughter is active in sports at school is terrific. If you can also keep her active at home, that's even better. How? Participate with her. Take a dance class together, do yoga together, take walks and bike together, or buy pedometers -- or even a treadmill -- and compete with her (in a fun way!) to see who can log the most miles in a week. Introduce the concepts of building aerobic health, flexibility, and muscle strength.

2. Educate yourself and your family about nutrition. The latest research shows that the balance of bacteria in our gut microbiome depends on what we eat. Consuming processed foods can kill the "good" bacteria so the "bad" bacteria takes over, which can make us crave more of the foods the "bad" bacteria thrive on -- junk food! 34% of children eat fast food on any given day.  The US Centers for Disease Control suggests that this is one of the reasons obesity has more than doubled in kids (and quadrupled in adolescents!) over the last three decades. In other words, it is not just that we eat food that is bad for us. It's that the "bad" food changes our gut bacteria so that we crave more "bad" food!

Your daughter might be interested to hear that food companies aggressively target kids and adolescents to get them to buy junk food, even while they're well aware of the negative health impact. Many teenagers become less interested in fast food when they understand that food marketers are purposely trying to addict them.

3. Make sure your child eats healthfully at home. If she is eating mostly carbs, she'll get hungry sooner. Make sure she gets protein at every meal. Talk to her about her snack choices and help her develop a list of healthy protein snacks: yogurt, peanut butter on toast (make sure it's not hydrogenated), deviled eggs, lentil soup, chicken noodle soup, nuts mixed with raisins, leftover chicken or salmon, cubed tofu dipped in soy sauce. Of course, she also needs plenty of calcium, Vitamin A and Vitamin C, so as she chooses foods, ask her if she's eating a well-rounded diet that includes 7 vegetables and fruits daily.

4. Listen to why she wants to eat. Most kids think of fast food as a treat, and most kids will test you to see if you will give them a treat. It's the parents' job to just say no, nicely, just like you set limits about everything else. BUT discuss the emotions behind our food cravings. Most of us crave "comfort" food when we feel uncomfortable emotions inside -- boredom, sadness, anxiety. The more aware we are of those emotions, the more quickly they move through us, and the less they drive us to "numb" them by eating.

Ask your daughter to check in with her body. Is she actually physically hungry, or do fries just sound good? When my daughter was 12, she would have lived on fries and potato chips if allowed, but she knew that she only had them a couple of times a year, so she rarely asked for them. Even if you don't want to turn those into forbidden foods, you probably want to keep them for special occasion foods. If your daughter says she's actually hungry, offer her cheese sticks and an apple (which you can easily carry with you for awhile. After all, you did it when she was a toddler). If she doesn't want them, her body isn't really hungry. 

5. Rethink your own views. If your daughter's weight for height puts her in the 90th percentile, she probably thinks of herself as fat, and you may also. Start by consciously ditching the idea that your daughter should fit the overly thin model that dominates our culture. Then have a conversation with her pediatrician, without your daughter around, about whether she is overweight. Most pediatricians warn parents at their daughter's annual checkup at around age ten that girls usually put weight on as they approach puberty, and this is not unhealthy. Be sure to ask her pediatrician about her BMI (body-mass index). 

If the pediatrician does think your daughter is overweight, don't even consider putting her on a diet. Diets don't work. They mess up the metabolism and make it very hard to lose weight. They set up a lifetime of yoyo weight and feeling deprived. And the more your daughter feels like you don't love her the way she is, the more she will overeat to push away the feeling of being not good enough. Instead, throw out all the unhealthy food in your house and just don't bring any more in. Cook healthfully, and teach your daughter to eat healthfully. It will gradually help her to stabilize at a healthier weight, and it will be good for everyone in your family. Someone in your family who is in perfect health who misses ice cream? They can have their cone out of the house when your daughter isn't around.

6. Be a good role model for your daughter. Kids are more likely to have severe weight issues if their parents constantly diet and binge (and isn't it interesting that dieting and binging go together?) Acknowledge your own issues around food and your body, and resolve to heal them. Make peace with your basic body type, which isn't something you can change. Throw out the scale, which leads to unhealthy body obsession. Start lavishing love on your self, along with healthy food and exercise habits. Never say anything mean about your own body, and resist commenting on other women's bodies.

7. Reject deprivation, for yourself and for your daughter. Revel in all the pleasures of the senses: a bubble bath, a deep breath, a good stretch, a bird's song, the beauty of a garden, the warm sun, a delicious meal. Focus on the bountifulness of your life, and teach her to do so as well. Don't make food treats a part of your daily life (except fruit), but when one crosses your path, go ahead and indulge. If it isn't a habit, it's fine. Depriving oneself just sets up cravings. And never skip meals, which causes hunger that induces us to eat whatever is available quickly, no matter how unnutritious.

8. Educate yourself and your daughter about how dangerous eating disorders are, and how our culture promotes them. We are barraged with images of overly thin women until we think those images are normal. They aren't. Fashion models are about 25% thinner than the majority of American women. There's a wide range of what is a "normal" woman's body, but since estrogen causes body fat to be stored in the hips, thighs, belly and buttocks, women tend to be voluptuous (the average woman in the U.S. is 5'4" and 143 lbs.) Normal is more like a Botticelli Venus than a model. Most teen girls think they are overweight, even though they aren't. Make sure she knows that weight gain is a normal part of developing as a woman, and fitness is the goal, not some warped cultural ideal of over-thinness.

9. Focus on the positive. Communicate that you adore her just the way she is. What we pay attention to in our kids is what flourishes. Catch her doing things right, all day long, and acknowledge them specifically:  

  • "I noticed how nice you were to your sister when you helped her with her homework."
  • "I love it when you practice the piano without being reminded."
  • "I love how cheerful you are in the morning."
  • "Thanks for taking out the trash with only one reminder!"
  • "I know that you were mad about that, and I really appreciate you controlling your temper so we could talk about it reasonably, that shows real maturity and self control."
  • "I love watching you play basketball. You're so fast, and such a good team player."
  • "Wow, your work in math is really improving!"
  • "Snuggling you like this makes me so happy, whether we talk or not."
  • "I notice you came right home and started your homework without any reminders!"
  • "I love our conversations in the car."
  • "Thanks for telling me about your fight with your friend. I admire how you apologized to her."
  • "One of the things I love about you is how you always give the dog lots of attention."

10. Reduce the stress in your daughter's life, and make sure she gets enough sleep (which is about ten hours a night.) Explain to your daughter that stress and too little sleep increase levels of cortisol, which is a powerful appetite trigger, makes the body put on weight, makes us more irritable, and also makes it harder to fall asleep at night. Brainstorm with your daughter about how she can get enough sleep, and decrease the stress in her life. Work with her so she feels like a competent problem solver. Simply being there to listen to her talk about her life on a regular basis (without judging, prescribing or fixing) will reduce her stress level considerably. Teach her to process her emotions in a healthy way (there's lots on this website about how to do this; you might want to start with the section on Emotional Intelligence.)

11. Recognize that Bruce Springsteen was right: "Everybody has a hungry heart." Does your daughter have a hunger that food won't fill? Most 12 year old girls are self conscious, anxious about their changing bodies and peer dynamics, and scared about losing their connection to their parents while they step into the new independence they need so they can grow up. Many tween girls are also starved for physical contact because mom and dad are nervous about snuggling their daughter now that she's looking more like a sexy young woman than a little girl.

Try offering your daughter more physical affection. Hug her as often as possible (when you wake her up in the morning, before she leaves for school, when you see each other again after school, etc). Make sure that you get some snuggle time while you chat with her daily, either at bedtime or on the couch. Brush her hair for her. Give her a shoulder or foot massage.

And, of course, recognize that sometimes being seen, accepted, and listened to fills our emotional hunger better than anything physical. Work to stay connected to your daughter as she begins developing appropriate independence. Make sure you spend intimate time with her and lavish affection on her every single day. Don't let her look for love in a bag of chips.

I wish you and your daughter much sweetness.
Dr. Laura

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Author of three best-selling books

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