In this story, we look at parent coaching for a Gina, whose 8-year-old daughter is gaining weight. Her daughter Becca’s pediatrician raised alarms about her weight at a recent appointment.
Gina knows that she has a lot of fear about her daughter’s weight. But she also knows that her own body image and eating issues could create a much larger problem than the weight itself.
Gina doesn’t know what to do. She doesn’t know how to be a great mom and protect her daughter from two potential threats: gaining weight and developing body image issues or even an eating disorder. Gina needs help.
Gina begins by telling me she has had food issues her whole life. Her mother was very large, and Gina spent much of her childhood convinced that her mom was going to die as a result. “It was a time when every news segment seemed to say something about how terrible weight is,” said Gina. “I tried to control my mom’s eating because I was so scared she would leave us.”
This fear shaped Gina, and she has always controlled her own food intake. “I know that at the very least I have disordered eating,” she said. “And I probably have an eating disorder, but there have just always been more important things to deal with.”
When she gave birth to Becca, she vowed to do better for her child. “My mom wasn’t great,” she said. “I can’t do that to my daughter.”
The doctor’s visit
Gina took Becca for an annual checkup. The pediatrician told her that Becca had gained too much weight in the past 12 months. He was concerned about the leap in Becca’s weight chart.
“All I could think of was that my baby would grow up to look like my mom,” said Gina. “It terrified me. But I was also pissed that the pediatrician talked about weight like it was a bad thing in front of Becca. It’s like I know that he’s not supposed to say stuff like that, but I’m worried about Becca’s weight, too.”
The situation at home
Things haven’t been great at home for Gina. She and her husband are in couples therapy. They are trying to make their marriage better and stay together for the sake of their kids.
Family meals almost never happen. “We’re just so busy, so we often feed our kids before we feed ourselves,” said Gina. As a result, the kids are eating a lot of chicken nuggets and mac and cheese. And the parents are often grabbing the kids’ leftovers and eating crackers and cheese or chips and salsa for dinner.
“We give them a lot of fruit and veggies, and they love them, but I know that their meals could be a lot healthier,” said Gina. “I just don’t know if I have the energy.”
But since the doctor’s visit, Gina can see that she is more aware of Becca’s plate and weight. “I’m afraid that my daughter is gaining weight,” she said. “And I don’t want to do it, but I’ve been trying to restrict her food ever since. I’m counting calories for her, and I know that’s not right.”
Mom, I know I’m fat
Two weeks after the doctor’s visit, Becca complained of a headache. Rather than using the weight they got at the doctor’s office, Gina saw an opportunity to check in and see if Becca has lost any weight since the appointment.
“It’s like I knew that I shouldn’t weigh my daughter in that moment,” said Gina. “I didn’t want to make her feel ashamed of her body. But I did it, anyway. I told her I need to know her weight for the Tylenol dosage.”
Becca had lost no weight. She looked at the scale, then up at her mother. “I know I’m fat, mommy,” said Becca.
“And that was it,” said Gina. “That’s when I knew I needed help. I know I’m going to mess this up, and I just don’t want to. I want to do better.”
“I don’t know what to do or how to do it,” said Gina. “But I don’t want her to lose that sparkle in her eye. I don’t want her to suffer from her weight for life. And I don’t want to live in fear of my daughter gaining weight.”
Parent coaching for a daughter gaining weight
Together we explored Gina’s history with food, eating, and weight. I helped her have more compassion for herself and see that many times she is framing issues as black and white when in fact they are multifaceted. There is often no single “right” or “wrong” answer, especially when it comes to food and weight.
Gina agreed to work with a therapist on her own food issues since they are deeply rooted in her childhood experience. As she worked with the therapist and healed her own relationship with her body, we made some adjustments to how she sees her daughter’s food and weight.
Meanwhile, we worked on practical strategies for improving the food environment in the home and addressing both parents’ fears about weight. It’s hard to overcome weight bias, but parents who do so have healthier kids for life.
We agreed that Becca’s weight needs to be a non-issue. After some discussion, Gina got rid of the household scale. Her therapist and I agreed that it could serve no positive purpose.
What we worked on
- Gina needed to heal her own relationship with food and her body. She had a lot of trauma in her history that was making it hard for her to be a good parent about food and body issues. As she healed herself, she could parent Becca from a more loving, compassionate position.
- Girls need to gain weight to undergo puberty, and Becca was in the early stages of puberty. The pediatrician’s counsel was harmful and unnecessary. Pediatricians should actually rarely mention weight, especially in front of children. Medical weight interventions are almost always harmful.
- Even if Becca’s weight gain was not because of puberty, we can still consider it “normal” for Becca’s body. Weight is up to 80% genetic, and Becca may naturally have a larger body. Gina learned that she should not try to control or reduce Becca’s weight, since parents who do this have kids who are less healthy and weigh more than parents who don’t.
- Becca had a fairly sedentary lifestyle, and she was eating food throughout the day without planning or supervision. We worked to establish a feeding schedule that Becca could count on. Gina and her husband were responsible for when food was available and what food was available, but Becca was responsible for how much she ate. We also established “Family Fun Days” that involved the entire family doing something active together. Becca became more active and ate better. These improvements in lifestyle had nothing to do with weight, and they made a huge impact on her mental and physical health.
- While Gina and her husband can’t always make family dinner work, we set a schedule for at least four family meals per week. I introduced Gina to Ellyn Satter’s Division of Labor, which was helpful for Gina when planning family meals.
If you have a similar situation and need some help, please reach out for private coaching.