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"Mom, Do I Look Fat?"

As a parent, our impulse is to always reassure, and soothe. As our children become preteens, they need more than a Band-Aid to comfort them.
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Anyone out there deal with this one yet? ( I am writing today for those with girls in that 8-14 year-old range.)

If you have trained yourself to stop saying: "Do I look fat in this?" out loud, particularly in front of your daughter, hoping to communicate a positive body image, it can be a shock when you hear for the first time: "Mom, I feel fat!" or "Mom, I am fat!"

Preteens and Their Changing Bodies

While many people focus on issues in "teenage years," the preteen years, when your daughter's body is preparing for puberty, can come with its own specific challenges. Several things to consider are:

This is a time of increasing body consciousness. Girls are beginning, if they haven't already, to compare their own bodies to those of their friends. They are navigating images of bodies in a world where the emphasis is on thin. The media encourages this perception with an emphasis on body types that are out of the average range. Although we want to protect our daughters and tell them not to be obsessed with America's Top Model, we can't stick our head in the sand and pretend that this world doesn't exist.

The surge of hormones brings on more sensitivity. Along with increased social and peer pressure and the wish to 'fit in', girls do compare their bodies and body parts. Their worries about who is friends with who, and the shifting alliances between groups of friends, can all be funneled into focusing on their bodies.

Girls often appear chunkier, or 'fluffier' as their bodies prepare to menstruate. They will put on fat in the areas where estrogen is stored; namely, the stomach, butt, thighs, and upper arms. Nutritionists I have consulted with say that this can be a time when they get the most referrals. Keep in mind that this is often transitional stage, until their bodies 'settle out'. It is vital that preteens don't restrict their eating too much, or start a diet unless medically necessary. This can trip off an eating disorder, or an eating pattern that creates long-term problems.

Tips to Help You and Your Daughter Navigate the "I Am Fat" Complaint

When you have a calm moment, sit with your daughter and ask her more about her concern: "You worry that you are fat; what makes you think that?" Begin a conversation. Ask about their social lives and any hurt feelings. If your child is concerned about a particular body part, remind her that every body is different. Everyone's body has its own shape, and its own timetable for its changes.

Don't let your preteen start to diet as a result of their worry. If in fact they have a weight problem, or are beginning to eat compulsively on a regular basis, consult a professional. Dieting can cause long term problems related to unhealthy eating habits. Remind them to eat the foods they love, but to always eat when hungry and stop when full. Try to notice if they are eating out of boredom or anxiety and ask them about it. Distract them with talk.

If your preteen is spending too much time in the mirror, keep them moving! Set a time limit! Joke about it, and just keep them putting one foot in front of the other. Be aware if your daughter is withdrawing from her friends or avoiding social situations. Help your daughter move through her negative feelings and teach her that it is normal to not feel great about all of the parts of herself. If these preoccupations persist and interfere with your daughter's functioning or she is overly restricting her food, seek professional help.

Have a 'matter of fact' attitude. Teach your preteen that feelings pass. Treat her anxiety in a matter of fact way. Show your preteen that it is okay to feel anxious, not great sometimes, and that it can pass. Show her that you can hold onto a larger view, while empathizing that she feels badly. Don't avoid her feelings.

As a parent, our impulse is to always reassure, and soothe. As our children become preteens, they need more than a Band-Aid to comfort them. Often, our preteens need to vent their frustration and negativity. So, just like in any other parenting issue, listen and acknowledge your daughter's feelings while forgiving yourself for any of your own feelings that get triggered. We all have our limits after all, and at times, you can simply respond: "Please don't insult my daughter."

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