“Have you gained weight?” I remember being 15 years old and hearing my father ask me this as I sat down my messenger bag full of that weekend’s homework assignments. I honestly do not even remember my response, but what I do remember is the pit that formed in my stomach and the internal thought, “It’s true, I really do look heavier,” that restlessly paced through my brain. My dear dad is not the meek and mild type. No, he shoots straight with his words in the same way he does with a rifle in his hands and his eye on the bullseye. He had no intention of making me feel insecure but, after all, I was his only girl smashed between two boys and he was learning as he went. As a competitive high school cross country and track athlete, I was mortified by the changes in my body. To me they meant slower times and a deviation from what I thought my body needed to look like to be successful as an athlete. I had no idea what was happening to my body and it seemed my dad didn’t have a clue either. It felt like things would never get better.
Female adolescent development can be a breeding ground for body image issues and disordered eating. I think it is easy to overlook the significant changes that the body experiences. Think about a puppy. Watching a puppy grow taller and stronger into mature form is amazing. So much changes in such a short amount of time that friends and family can’t help but remark, “You have gotten so big! What a good dog!” When a young girl begins to change into a woman, the internal and external feedback is usually less positive and often uncomfortable.
There is no set script for what to expect during adolescence. The timing of development, body changes, mood swings, and onset of the menstrual cycle can look a little different for each child. In healthy development, we understand these changes will occur, but the timing and extent of change is left relatively uncertain. Here are a few ways that you can help support your daughter during this stage of her life.
- Remind her it is healthy and normal. Development changes are a good sign! It means the body is doing exactly what it was designed to do, even though the changes seem overwhelming and uncomfortable at times. Reminding your daughter that she will reach a place where she feels comfortable and adjusted to her body changes will encourage her of the fact that this stage will not last forever.
- Remind her that the female body can become stronger, faster, and more powerful through the early 30s. It would have been so nice to understand this at 15. Take a survey of the ages of some of the most competitive female Olympic athletes and you will find that many of them are in their mid 20s through 30s. Encourage your child that with adequate sleep and nutrition, their body will be better yet on the other side of adolescence.
- Remind her that the heart and integrity of a person can always be made stronger all throughout life, but the body will change through the lifespan and its capabilities will shift with age. There is no shortage of opportunities for comparison. It is all too easy to get sucked into chasing after a perceived physical ideal as a means to increase self-confidence. Parents should 100% support the development of healthy self-care habits in their teens while also affirming the ways they show integrity, character, and hard work. The young woman who feels insecure about her body needs to hear that her value as a person is much deeper than her physical appearance.
- Don’t panic. Weight gain during adolescence happens. Like my dad, sometimes parents are not sure where the line is between the normal body development changes and unhealthy weight gain. If you are concerned that your child is not adjusting as well due to a lack of physical activity or unhealthy eating, consider how to increase healthy habits for the whole family, rather than focusing on body size. Go on family hikes, support your child in trying a new sport of interest or hobby involving physical activity, and seek to fill your pantry and refrigerator with healthy options for everyone to try. Make nutritious, balanced meals, invite your kids to have input in healthy meal ideas they would like to try, limit screen time, and, if you have a dog, encourage the kids to take turns walking the pet each day. Emphasize the value of exercise and proper nutrition for overall health, improved sleep, energy supply, improved mood, and long-term health. Healthy comes in many sizes. If healthy behaviors are present and no other medical concerns exist, your child is on the right path!
My dad didn’t always say the right thing, but he also praised me for my strength, my will to go after any goal I set my mind to. He praised my desire to work hard and be disciplined. Many of those messages I heard from him helped me to push through adversity because I knew he believed I was tough enough to get to the other side.
As a parent, you do not have to be perfect to raise a confident daughter, but there is always room to get a little better. Supporting your daughter through adolescence means reminding her that her value and beauty is more than skin deep. It never hurts to invite your child to talk about what they are experiencing. Listen well and remind her that while developmental discomfort is normal, it isn’t easy. Affirm the character traits you see in your child that are positive. The internal world creates the scene for what becomes our external experience. Last, acknowledge your own perceptions about body size and consider how those perceptions may be shaping your expectations for your child. Growing up in a house full of athletes, my parent’s view of “healthy” was largely shaped by their lens of being highly competitive athletes themselves. While the apple often doesn’t fall far from the tree, seek to let your encouragement of healthy habits be greater than your encouragement of obtaining a certain weight or shape.