My daughter has suddenly gained weight. What am I doing wrong?

I hear this all the time from parents:

“My daughter (or son) was always so skinny and could eat whatever she wanted. Now she is starting to get a fat stomach. I have started telling her to cut down on the junk and eat more healthily. What else should I do?”.

Stop! Before you go on further, first know that you are not alone.

It is scary when our children gain weight – and for no apparent reason.

We go into panic mode, and believe we need to fix them – now. We want to “teach them healthy habits” now, so they won’t get fatter. We start watching what they eat. If we have struggled with our weight and body, we want to prevent this in our children. We want to keep them thin.

Know this. Your intuition has failed here. Here’s why.

It is normal and healthy for children to gain weight during and before puberty. This can begin as early as 8 or 9 for girls.

In fact: Rapid weight gain in girls is normal during and leading up to puberty, which is usually between the ages of 8 and 13 years old. Girls will gain up to 13 kg (about 30 lb) in body fat during this period of growth which takes place over a few years as she develops into a woman.

Girls often begin to gain fat in the belly area, which then spreads out to the hips and breast area as the maturation process progresses.

So, this fat stomach you are worried about? Its actually normal, and healthy too , as her body is storing fat in order to have banks of energy that they can pull from when she reaches puberty. She will start to grow taller, her hips will grow wider, her breasts will grow.

Adolescent growth is not linear. Some girls get taller first, then curvier. Some gain weight first, and then later on grow in height and develop hips and a waist.

Your children, if you have done your job, know exactly how much to eat and what to eat from what you offer. The best way to do this is by following sDOR. Sometimes they eat too much, other times too little but will self-regulate if you don’t get in this way.

Now is when parents start to interfere with their child’s eating. Because of not understanding normal growth many parents start at this age, simply, with their comments, looks and focus on weight.

One of my friend’s, after going a little crazy with anxiety that her 12-year-old son was devouring loaves of bread, said it best:

“I was expecting my son to get to 6 foot 4 inches eating as much as a 5-year-old”.

Freaking out about the changes in our children comes out in very well-meaning, but extremely destructive things we say to our children:

“Do you really need that second helping of ice-cream?”

“Why don’t have some more salad if you are still hungry”?

“Haven’t you had enough sweets today?”

“Fruit is healthier snack than pretzels, don’t you think?

What you don’t know is that your well-meaning comments have a lasting impression. Many adults relate that these comments, at these young ages, were the beginning of their lifelong struggle with weight, food and body-image. My mother luckily never made many comments about what I was eating (she may have thought them though), but the ones she did make are permanently etched in my childhood memories.

Why? Because these comments cause shame.

  1. Shame around their bodies – suddenly, your child realizes that their body is too big. They sense your disapproval and begin to believe that their worth as a person depends on their size.
  2. Shame around their appetites – a growing child is hungry. When we question their need or desire for food, they begin to lose trust in their body’s biological cues. This sets the stage for disordered eating, dieting, bingeing and general movement away from attuned or intuitive eating.
  3. Shame around food – children start to believe that some foods make you fat and some make you thin. Because they now believe that to be loved and worthy they need to be thin, they ascribe moral values to food and this leads to food pre-occupation, as well food choices which may not be the most nutritionally beneficial.

Shame leads to children, who up till now, may never have thought too much about their bodies or food in this way, to try and change their bodies. They fear the changes puberty brings and yearn from their childlike body.

All because their parents didn’t understand NORMAL and healthy growth.

So, here’s what to do instead of shaming your child, commenting on how much they eat, rather:

  • Carry on serving a variety of different foods reliably (follow sDOR)
  • Encourage set meals and snacks – discourage eating in front of the TV or phone. This promotes attuned eating
  • Feed them as if you weren’t worried about their weight
  • Family meals – eat with your children at last 3 times a week.
  • Neutral education. Educate (yourself first) your child about their changing body without fear or judgement. Answer questions honestly and help them understand their body’s changes. Help your daughter understand that weight gain is a inevitable — and healthy — part of her development. Explain that her body shape is going to continue to change over the next few years until she becomes a young adult and then it will stop growing.
  • Encourage joyful movement (and be a role model) not as a punishment for their size or to lose weight
  • Deal with your own weight issues so you don’t need to pass them onto your children. Own up to your own weight bias and beliefs around fat people
  • Don’t compare your child to her peers. See above – every child goes through this stage differently. Your child will probably end up with a shape similar to one of her parents.
  • Value – free nutrition education. Start with basic information such as classification of food groups, basic cooking abilities, and meal planning. Stay away from calling foods good or bad, fattening or healthy. Simply provide information and knowledge about the purposes of food. Classifying food in moral terms is highly dangerous and contributes to restricting, overeating and body shame for the long term.

Is this easy? Not at all. It means trusting the process and trusting their appetite. It means embracing a new paradigm which you don’t understand fully. It means offering a different alternative to your child embarking on a path entrenched in diet culture, body shame and other negative behaviors such as disordered eating, restriction and bingeing.

Is it worth it? Yes.

The result is that their body will develop into its natural size and weight over the next several years. It’s hard and scary enough for your child to accept their changing body without any of your comments or disapproval. What they need is your love, understanding and guidance as you set the foundation for an adult who nurtures, respects and cares for the body they have been born with.


Further worthwhile reading:

  1. Kathy Kater – Body Image Specialist
  2. Celebrate your body and its changes too

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