Mom, Am I Fat?
Dialogues that could save your child’s life
Mom, Am I Fat?
Dialogues that could save your child’s life
by Abigail H. Natenshon, MA, LCSW,GCFP
Your child’s room is strewn with clothing as she searches desperately for something to wear that “looks decent.” As the piles become heaps, still nothing looks good enough. She peers into the mirror and sees only that her physical appearance does not measure up to the standards she has set for herself. Her eyes see “fat” everywhere she looks, her belly, her thighs, her face, her hips. She turns to you and the dreaded question emerges. “Mom, am I fat?” You look at your daughter in wonderment. To you, she is the picture of health, trim and fit. Now comes the challenge…how to respond.
To quote W.C. Fields, sometimes “a cigar is just a cigar…;” sometimes such a question is simply an innocent request for a status report on her body size and appearance. More often than not, however, it can be the tip of an emotional iceberg, a thinly veiled indicator of other underlying concerns, and a confession of her fears… about being or becoming fat, about losing self-control, about dealing with her own self-loathing, about an obsessive compulsivity regarding food and body weight that interferes with her daily functioning. A child’s preoccupation with food and eating is typically a warning sign that she has begun to struggle with a shaky sense of self, a distorted self- perception, body image concerns, and faulty judgment that could lead her down a slippery slope to a clinical eating disorder.
A normal response coming from a parent might be, “Are you kidding/crazy? Of course you’re not fat! You are just right!” leaving the child with a sense that you may be questioning her judgment and sanity in even having asked such a question. She may hear that you are either biased in her favor, or just plain dishonest and not to be trusted, or that you just don’t know what looks good or how important it is to be thin; she may decide to leave you out of the loop altogether next time, as you clearly can’t be of help to her. On the other hand, if you were to respond, “Well, you do look a little rounder around the middle,” there is a good likelihood that she will be plunged further into the depth of despair and anxiety, experiencing an ever increasing preoccupation with her body image and resolution that there is no alternative for her but to diet rigorously. It is no wonder that parents feel confused, trapped, and frightened in their own right for being in what appears to be a no-win situation with their pre-adolescent and adolescent daughters… and these days, with children who may be no older than five or six.
Whatever your child is attempting to communicate, it is the responsibility for you as a parent to investigate the query with open ears and an open mind, to tread softly but assuredly, prepared to recognize potential problems and respond clearly and decisively, nipping problems in the bud. Be grateful that your child has chosen to bring you into her inner world by sharing what may be her deepest concerns, and then hone in to decipher what your child may reallybe saying. Chipping away at the possible significance of a child’s comment or question brings parents to critical discoveries through a process called active listening.
Four easy steps to Active Listening
Active listening is the currency of a healing connection between parent and child that allows parents to remain authoritative and parental in teaching important life lessons and imparting self-actualizing values. Active listening responses often take the form of questions.
“Mom, am I fat?”
- The listening parent is able to hear what is both spoken and unspoken, what lies beneath the surface, bypassing the obvious to reveal what is at the heart of the question.
- “I wonder what makes you ask such a question. Do you doubt your own capacity to know how you look?”
- The child is invited to listen to herself, to begin the process of self-discovery.
- “What might be leading to these concerns now?” How long have you been thinking about this?”
- “What are your own ideas about this?”
- “Are you actively trying to lose weight now?”
- “Does your concern make you alter the way you eat or dress?”
- “If you were to decide to lose weight, how would you go about doing so?
- The parent hears the feelings underlying the content of the question posed.
- “It sounds to me as though you may be worrying about how you look. You know, when you are surrounded by skinny girls at school who don’t eat lunch, it’s normal to begin worrying that maybe there’s something wrong with you. Did you eat a nutritious lunch at school today?” If not, “Why not?”
- The child is offered the opportunity to find a meaningful solution to a problem revealed.
- “Let me explain a few things that may help you think about this. Are you aware that…
- Dieting is the worst way to lose weight?”
- Kids who diet increase their odds of becoming overweight adults?”
- The best way to manage overweight is to eat differently (more regularly, more nutritiously) not less”.
- 20 percent of the weight that girls gain in puberty needs to be gained in fat so that their body can prepare to bear a child one day.”
Eating disorder prevention saves lives and protects children from unnecessary suffering. It starts with a parent’s willingness to listen and to establish an effective parent/child connection through probing, sensitive and caring communications. The nature of this connection will change through the years and through life experience to accommodate the growing child’s changing needs and increasing autonomy and they will take diverse forms. It is critical that parents appreciate the power of this connection and their input in their child’s life throughout the child’s stages of development, from childhood through adolescence, young adulthood, and beyond.
Abigail Natenshon, MA LCSW, GCFP is a psychotherapist who has specialized in the treatment of eating disorders with individuals and families for the past 37 years. The author of When Your Child Has An Eating Disorder: A Step-by-Step Workbook for Parents and Other Caregivers, Ms. Natenshon is the founder and director of Eating Disorder Specialists of Illinois and a Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitioner; she and uses this hands-on body-centered technique in conjunction with traditional psychotherapy to augment and promote body image awareness, acceptance and healing.
Abbie consults professionally and speaks nationally on the topics of eating disorders… their prevention and treatment, body image, and healthy eating and weight management. An advocate for parents of afflicted children, she has published widely in books, magazines, journals and newspapers, and has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show, the John Walsh Show, and MSNBC News. The creator and host of www.empoweredparents.com, www.empoweredkidZ.com, and www.treatingeatingdisorders.com, she conducts a private practice in psychotherapy in Highland Park Illinois where she resides with her husband.