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Hax: 13-year-old's weight turns into struggle

  • Article by: CAROLYN HAX
  • July 21, 2013 - 2:00 PM

Dear Carolyn: I am the father of a 13-year-old daughter who would rather sit on the couch and watch TV than do anything else, whereas most of her friends play sports or do other exercise-related activities. My wife and I are concerned because she has gained 20 pounds over the past 18 months or so, now has a noticeable belly, and her clothes are obviously tighter. I think her metabolism has dramatically slowed since she hit puberty about two years ago.

My wife and I have been very careful not to say anything about her appearance or her weight. We have always tried to instill good eating habits and we tell her she needs to exercise more for her overall health rather than weight loss. Unfortunately, she is not very receptive to our suggestions and we have a lot of heated discussions about it. My daughter doesn’t seem to understand the relationship between food, exercise and her body.

Our pediatrician told her that she needs to exercise at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week. My wife and my daughter recently started going to aerobics classes together two to three times a week, which they both enjoy. On the off days we have been happy if she does the elliptical machine at home or plays a game like “Just Dance” on the Wii. However, it is always a struggle and we usually have to take away her phone before she will agree to exercise.

The ultimate goal is to make sure our daughter leads a healthy, active lifestyle. My biggest fear is that we inadvertently create self-esteem or body-image issues if we are not careful. Do you have any thoughts or suggestions about how to handle this?

Carolyn says: You have a daughter who, at 13, has no interest in her world besides what comes off a screen, and you’re worried about 20 pounds? If she were thin, TV as life purpose would fly?

While you still have the (apparently underused) ability to say, “No TV except (conditions here),” your entire focus needs to be on your daughter’s emotional and intellectual health. How did she get to the point where she has no outside interests or hobbies, no passions, no non-couch activities like “most of her friends”?

Have you encouraged hobbies or skills? Have you equipped her to be an active adult, by providing experience, lessons and/or family togetherness in lifetime pursuits like hiking, biking, tennis, golf, swimming or regional sports like surfing, skiing, rowing, climbing? Many offer low-cost youth programs to encourage participation.

And, have you equipped her to push herself, explore, try-fail-recover-repeat?

You do not get to decide what your daughter enjoys doing, and those forced aerobics can reap as much resentment as fitness. But you do get to say that sitting around the house being passively entertained is a waste of her gifts, a waste of time, a waste of life. (Sugarcoat as needed.)

You do get to say, yes, it can be difficult to figure out just what each of us has to offer. You can say you will follow her lead and encourage and support whatever productive endeavor she chooses to pursue.

And you can say your only requirement is that she pursue something. Art, music, books, dance, sports, recreation, crafts, volunteer work, paid work (dog-walking, baby-sitting, lawn-mowing) ... ? Knitting for wounded troops or the homeless or NICU babies, say, can make even TV worship productive.

After stating your do-something requirement, back off and back it up simultaneously by giving her a choice between a day or two to come up with ideas of her own, or a brainstorming session where you and she think up some possibilities. If she chooses (a), then explain that coming up empty on ideas will bring on (b).

Even if your mouths never form the word, your efforts so far scream “fat.” Your daughter surely sees through the “active lifestyle” spin.

Maybe she’s ignorant of food-body connections, but her parents don’t seem to understand the relationship between food and boredom (and depression). So please consider a “purposeful lifestyle” goal. A kid who’s occupied and engaged rarely snacks till her clothes give out.

E-mail Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com, or chat with her at 11 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

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