Dear Crucial Skills,
My eighteen-year-old daughter is beautiful, with lots of talents and a cheerful personality, but in the last two to three years she has become quite overweight. I know this is making her unhappy, but every time I attempt to talk to her about it, we end up in an emotional conversation. How do I have a crucial conversation with her regarding this sensitive issue?
Dear Concerned Mother,
Having a conversation with your eighteen-year-old daughter about being overweight is an especially crucial conversation because being overweight can be attached to a complex variety of issues and relationships.
You said you know her weight is making her unhappy. Is the fact that she is overweight a symptom of her unhappiness or the cause of her unhappiness? Is it a health issue? Is it a self-esteem issue? Is it comfort eating because she’s lonely or is it due to peer pressure because she can’t say no to her friends when they use sugar and chocolate as their drugs of choice? Is it due to not wanting to lose weight or an issue of not knowing how?
You mentioned that when you bring up her weight, you end up in an emotional conversation. Does your daughter feel like you are trying to control her life? Is she happy with her weight but feels you are rejecting her because of it? This is a tough conversation—especially when your daughter is sensitive about the topic—because it’s difficult to anticipate where it will lead or how you can be of help to her.
As parents, we see our kids struggling and we want to help in the worst way, and that’s often exactly the way we help—the worst way. In this case, the worst way is to ignore an issue that is affecting your daughter’s happiness. A close second is to nag or preach to your daughter about her weight. It seems to me the key to this conversation is to make sure your intentions are good and to communicate those intentions to your daughter in a helpful, transparent way.
First, before you even open your mouth, examine your motives and get your heart right. Get a blank sheet of paper and answer these questions:
“What do I really want to come from this conversation?”
“What results am I trying to achieve?”
“What relationship do I want to have with my daughter?”
Be honest with yourself and answer the questions truthfully. Why is her weight a problem for you? Does her appearance embarrass you? Are you afraid she won’t attract someone and you’ll never get the grandkids you’ve always wanted? Are you afraid your daughter’s weight reflects on you and means you are a bad parent?
Now, these may sound silly, but sometimes in our most honest, reflective moments, we realize our intentions are mostly about our issues, not the other person’s. If you realize your motives are hurtful to the other person, you are not ready to have the crucial conversation with him or her. If this is the case, work on your own issues before involving your daughter. If, on the other hand, you recognize that what you really want is to help your daughter, be a resource to her, and contribute to her happiness in a way that strengthens your relationship with her, then you’re ready to begin.
Start by sharing the facts as you see them, and check out your assumptions or story with a question. For example, “Becca, you’ve seemed a bit down and unhappy. You’ve also made sarcastic remarks about gaining weight. Are these two issues connected? Are you unhappy about your weight?”
Be tentative in both your observations and your conclusions. Don’t make accusations. Don’t use labels.
If you get a defensive or emotional response, listen and check for understanding by asking a question or mirroring her response.
Maybe she says: “I don’t want to talk about it, just leave it alone.”
You might try: “Why’s that?”
If she responds with: “Because it’s none of your business!”
Try mirroring: “Do you feel I’m intruding where I don’t belong?”
She comes back with: “Why can’t you just let me live my life?”
As you gain insight into how your daughter is viewing your relationship or your motivation, share your good intentions. How do you know what your good intentions are? Because you listed them when you asked yourself, “What do I really want?” Your answers are your intentions. Now just share these with your daughter. A very effective way to do this is with a contrasting statement. Contrast what you don’t want with what you do want.
Try this: “Becca, I’m not trying to meddle or control you. I’m not trying to intrude. I just want you to be happy.”
Sharing your intentions does two things. First, it clarifies your motive so she doesn’t misunderstand and second, it suggests a mutual purpose—your daughter’s happiness.
If the concerns she shares about your motives are true, admit it. If they are not true, share your good intention by contrasting to clarify the misunderstanding.
For example: “I’m not embarrassed by your weight. I’m not judging you. I just want you to be happy with yourself.”
Or: “I’m not saying I’m smarter than you. I’m not saying you’re irresponsible. I’m just trying to say that what you’re doing doesn’t seem to be working for you.”
Because you respectfully listen and make an effort to create mutual purpose, you are creating the two conditions that make it safe. And if your daughter feels safe with you, she is more likely to be open and you will be able to find ways to help her. Your help may be as simple as listening and helping her sort things out, or it might be as active as helping her enroll in a gym and paying for her trainer. Whether your help is passive or very active, it’s hard to get to solutions until you’ve talked through the problem. Once the conversation has opened up, true understanding can be shared and solutions found.
I have found when our intentions toward the other person are truly good and we openly share these intentions, fear and mistrust dissipate and conversations can help solve even the most sensitive problems.
All the best,