Question: My 15-year-old daughter is 5 foot 4 and 144 pounds. I realize that she is stocky, but she feels as if she is obese. It seems like she's always been about 10 pounds overweight and I know that kids make fun of her. She's constantly talking about how fat she is and how difficult it is to find clothes at the mall, but I still see her eating a lot of junk at home as well as more than one portion at dinner. I don't want to give a lot of attention to this problem, but she's constantly talking about it and not really doing anything about it. Should I ignore the problem and let her just work it out or should I make her try to lose weight?
Answer: To a 15 year old, being 10 to 20 pounds overweight can be a mortifying experience. Although your daughter may look just a little stocky to you, most likely she's going to school with girls as thin as toothpicks, which only accentuates the problem. Our culture is so thin-oriented that it's difficult for a teenager, especially a girl, to psychologically survive adolescence in one piece if she is overweight and feels unattractive.
By 15, kids usually don't just "drop the baby fat." It's something she's going to have to work on by both diet and exercise. Most of us have been through diets for many years and realize how difficult they are to maintain and how easily the pounds return. We've also accepted the fact that it's not just dieting that's important, but setting up an exercise program along with it.
The first thing that I would do is to get her involved in a nutritionally approved dietary program. Many of the local hospitals offer programs for children and adolescents. Also consider Weight Watchers for your teenager. It's often easier for a child to stay on a diet if somebody else in the family is also on the plan. If it is appropriate, you may wish to go to the meetings as well as follow the nutritional plan yourself. It's very important that you rid the house of inappropriate snacks. You may be surprised how much junk food has accumulated and how your lifestyle allows high fat foods. The other members of your family may grumble initially, but will soon accept fruit for snacks if you explain to them that none of you need to be tempted by cookies and ice cream.
The next challenge is exercise. Many kids enjoy going to a fitness center with a friend or even a parent. Again, if this is something that you can fit into your life, it will probably help both of you. Getting into a workout routine and sticking to it may be difficult at first, but once it becomes a part of your life you may actually miss it when you cannot go. If you can't afford the time or expense to join a fitness center, try getting into a walking routine with your daughter. Not only is this exercise excellent in terms of cardiovascular fitness, it gives the two of you plenty of time to talk. This will take a commitment on your part as there are many other things that will crop up to interfere with your nightly walks, but if you stick to it, you and your daughter should see results fairly quickly.
Third, reward her for her efforts. As soon as you see a drop in clothing size, take her to the mall and purchase a new shirt or pair of pants. She'll feel terrific about her success and will be even more motivated to continue her efforts if she sees that a new wardrobe can slowly be attained.
For 20 years, psychologist Ruth Peters has specialized in treating children and families. If you have questions for her, or suggestions about what has worked for you during your children's middle years, please send them to Middle Ground, the Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL, 33731. Please include your name and phone number, which won't be published.