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‘Should I be more blunt with my 13-year-old about her weight problem?’

Ask the Expert: I am overweight myself I don’t want her to go through the same thing

What is the best way to deal with a weight issue with a 12-year-old girl (13 in two weeks). She has always been a little bit pudgy and since she has started puberty she has come to put on more weight.

She is relatively inactive but does do GAA, though it has become an increasing struggle to get her there and, since last week, she has been threatening to give it up.

She is obsessed with eating sweets and cakes, etc (maybe no more that other kids) and when I try to advise her about healthy eating it usually falls on deaf ears. I tend to tip-toe around the weight issue and I am wondering if I should be more blunt with her. I do think she is self-conscious about it herself and I notice that she is becoming awkward about fitting into clothes and is making comparisons with some of her friends (who are skinny or normal weight).

Last week, in the middle of a row, her brother called her fat and she burst into tears. I read the riot act with him and he did apologise. He is generally a good kid and they get on most of the time. I am worried about her. I don’t want to leave it if there is something I can help her with. I must be honest and say that I am overweight myself and it has been a struggle for me for most of my adult life. I don’t want her to go through the same thing.


Her dad and her brother are both fitness fanatics and very thin.

Talking about a child’s weight is a very sensitive topic and hard to get right. This is especially the case as they start adolescence when self-consciousness about body image becomes a big issue. However, avoiding the topic altogether is also not a good idea.

Children who are overweight are at risk of becoming obese as adults with all the associated health problems. Helping your daughter change some patterns and establish some healthy habits as she enters adolescence could make a long term difference to her health and well-being.

Raising the subject

As you think about how to talk to your daughter be self-aware about your own feelings about being overweight. It can be easy to inadvertently project your own struggle onto your daughter and this can come across as criticism and judgment, even though you don’t directly talk about it. Sometimes the things that aren’t talked about become bigger issues than those that are talked about.

The key is to find a positive way to talk about things that helps you and your daughter feel better and take action. This could mean you acknowledge your own feelings about your weight and your own health goals and then ask her what she thinks.

Explain to your daughter how you are hoping to make health changes for yourself and ask her to help motivate you by joining in. It does not have to be an over-serious conversation and it can work to keep the tone light – you can joke about how the boys in the family find it easier to keep the weight off.

Sometimes people start this conversation by going for a health check with their GP who can give feedback on BMI and healthy eating and even refer you and your daughter to a dietician. Having a professional outside the family start this conversation can sometimes be an easier way to get started. Keep the conversation focused on health, fitness and well-being rather than simply weight loss.

Sport and activity

It is great that your daughter is doing sport in the GAA and it is worth doing what you can to support her to continue. Unfortunately, lots of children drop out of sport in the teenage years.

Try to understand what her objections are to attending and see if you can address these – some children drop out due to the pressure of the competition or because they are feeling less part of the team or sometimes it is part of questioning rules as teenagers.

Explore other sports and activities she might be interested in whether these are other team sports or individual sports such as martial arts or family activities such as hikes, cycling together or walking the dog.

Healthy eating habits

Within our junk and treat food culture, it is harder than ever for teenagers and adults to maintain healthy eating habits and the pressures are everywhere. As a parent, the best place to act is in the home and reduce treat and junk food coming in in the first place. This might mean you only buy cakes and sweets once a week for a special family treats night.

Going out to buy them one at a time, rather than having a large stock that can be eaten quickly, can be a good policy. Secondly, ensuring you have more family mealtimes when you take time to cook and eat together rather than relying on “food on the go” can make a real difference, as can making healthy lunches that you take with you.

Focus on family goals

In my experience, when working with families who are concerned about a child being overweight, the ones who most successful in making changes are those who make it a family project of change. Rather than singling your daughter out, setting family goals to establish healthy habits is the way to go.

This can include setting goals around healthy eating, family mealtimes and increased physical activity, as well as other goals such as establishing good habits around screen time and relaxing routines for bedtime and sleep. See my previous series in The Irish Times series on healthy families for more information on making positive family changes.

– John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD school of psychology. See for details of courses and articles