Dear Dr. P,
I have a 10-year old daughter who is overweight. Her weight has been pretty normal until this year. Throughout this year she has gained 20 pounds and I feel like I have tried everything to help her lose the weight, from positive encouragement, to only having “healthier” food in the house. She has come home from camp crying because she was made fun of by some girls in her group. She says that she does not like being fat and wants to change but heads straight for the food pantry when she gets home. When I make suggestions, she says that she knows what to do and then continues with the same patterns. I am at a loss and am starting to become frustrated and feel helpless. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.
– Frustrated & Helpless
Dear Frustrated & Helpless,
I can understand how hard this must be for the both of you. Given that this is a more recent issue (over the past year), it suggests that her behavior and weight gain is symptomatic of something else that has been going on.
First, if you haven’t already, I suggest a check-up with her pediatrician to rule out any medical/physical explanation. Because girls are beginning puberty at a much earlier age than in the past, there could be hormonal changes that are wreaking havoc on her emotions, behavior, and weight.
Emotionally, turning ten can be anxiety provoking for a child, triggering fears about growing up, changing schools, changing body, etc. Children are struggling with the conflict of wanting to grow up, be powerful and in control to wanting to stay small and be taken care of — as a result, they can feel less in control.
The frustration and helplessness that you feel are likely the communications from your daughter about how she really feels. This is something that you could share with her by saying, “I wonder if you are feeling really frustrated and helpless, on the one hand you want to fit in and be liked, but on the other are worried that you won’t and give up.” Here, you would be opening a door to communication not about food or what she should or should not be eating (which puts her in a more defensive position), but more about exploring and understanding the painful feelings that are driving her to use food from a more collaborative and compassionate position.
Therefore, the aim with your daughter would be to help decode her underlying feelings that are driving her overeating behavior (emotional eating). She’s developed a self-soothing strategy in an attempt to cover over painful, difficult, and overwhelming feelings. Unfortunately, the strategy she is using only works momentarily and then after she feels like a failure. So, a vicious cycle is created. The more her real feelings can be made known and understood, she will likely be more able to tolerate them. As a result, she will feel less driven to cover over them and the vicious cycle can be broken.
With more energy freed up, there will be more of an opportunity to collaboratively develop more effective self-soothing strategies, ones that will leave her with real feelings of success and satisfaction. While it is important to come up with strategies together, some examples of more effective strategies could be: writing or drawing in a journal, going for walks together, calling up a friend, and/or setting up after-school activities.
About Dr. P
Dr. Laura Pescione is a licensed clinical psychologist with over 15 years of extensive training and experience working with children, adolescents, and adults. She is currently in private practice in Encino where she specializes in treating adults
with issues related to post-partum adjustment and parenting, as well as depression, anxiety, and relationship issues. Have a question for Dr. P? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit her online at www.drpescione.com