Be concerned, but let daughter work through weight problems
Q: Help. My 22-year-old daughter, a college senior, has gained weight over the past two years. Every holiday she returns home bigger than before. From my observation, the weight gain comes from eating too much fast food, drinking beer and leading a sedentary lifestyle. Whenever I bring up the subject, she walks away in an angry storm, saying that if I bring up the issue again, she will stop answering my calls. I do not call that often, and when I do, I ask about school, dorm life, boyfriend, and is she getting any exercise.
Her mother, my wife of 39 years, thinks this is my problem, and that I am too concerned with looks. As a concerned father, I feel I have the right to discuss my daughter's weight from a health and appearance point of view. Moreover, I only want to help. Does dad have a role here or should he bridle his tongue?
A: You have a right to talk about whatever you want, and certainly a father is in a fine position to help.
But I have to ask: What assistance do you think you're providing your daughter?
Does this college-educated 22-year-old need you to tell her that most fast food has a lot of calories and bad fat? That without exercise, her body probably won't burn all that energy? Does she need you to tell her that unburned food will be stored in her body as fat? Does she — or anyone, for that matter, with even semifitted clothing and a mirror — need you to tell her she's getting fatter?
At face value, you're calling her fat. If she digs, she'll see you're calling her stupid. That's not a call you'd want to take from anyone, either — much less from your father. Parental praise is easily dismissed. Parental criticism (contempt or disgust in particular) is radioactive, and has a long half-life.
Meanwhile, your harping on weight encourages her to dwell on it. Hello, food issues!
Plenty of people acquire bad habits and/or extra pounds during a challenging phase of their lives — whether they're busy, sad, distracted, excessively tempted. Plenty of them bounce back without help from even the most well-intentioned friends and relatives. I'm sure your daughter would appreciate it if Daddy showed a little faith in her ability to be one of those people.
Likewise, plenty of people acquire bad habits and/or extra pounds when they have underlying emotional problems. If your daughter is among them, then I'm sure she'd appreciate a father's concern for those problems, and not just a shallow fixation on appearances.
There are two things that will tell you the difference between a passing phase and a serious problem, and neither of them involves your asking her whether she jogged today.
The first is to listen to her. Not about what you think is important for you to know, but about what she thinks is important to say. Hear your daughter. Love her. Get to know her. Like her for who she is.
The second is to give her enough time and space to figure herself out, before you elbow your way in to declare her in need of fixing. Why alienate your daughter (and introduce baggage) over a problem that she, time, and even graduation, might very well solve on their own?