David Maxfield is coauthor of two New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I have a beautiful, talented twenty-four-year-old daughter who is fifty pounds overweight. She is currently in graduate school and has not been in the job market for the last two years. I worry about her health, and the bias she will face seeking a job as an overweight individual, and I ache for her lack of a social life.
I have been trying to serve healthy meals and discuss healthy eating at the dinner table, but I have stopped short of a direct crucial conversation with her. Now, she no longer goes on short walks and is doing even less physical activity than before.
How can I open dialogue with my daughter about weight management?
Crucial conversations with our closest loved ones can be the toughest and most rewarding conversations of our lives. They are challenging because you’re conflicted. You care deeply about your relationship and you worry that speaking up could threaten it. At the same time, you care deeply about your daughter’s health and happiness, so saying nothing isn’t an option. So, how do you speak up in a way that helps your daughter without undermining your relationship?
Find Mutual Purpose. You are clearly concerned about her weight, and you’ve identified several potential consequences: health, bias, social life, and physical activity. You’ve also noted that weight is a touchy, unsafe topic for your daughter. I suggest you begin with the safest common ground, the one she is least likely to see as meddling—your fundamental concern for her health. I wouldn’t introduce the issues related to potential bias or her social life. And I would let her steer the discussion to weight.
Help your daughter find her own motivation. Do your best to avoid giving advice, making suggestions, or lecturing. Instead, help your daughter explore her situation and decide for herself what she really wants.
Begin with a contrasting statement. A contrasting statement is a “don’t/do” statement that is designed to fix misunderstandings. You can already anticipate that your daughter is likely to misunderstand your intent. She may think you intend to tell her how to live her life. Fix this misunderstanding before it has a chance to grow.
- The “don’t” statement explains what you don’t intend. It anticipates and addresses your daughter’s concerns: “I’d like to hear your point of view on a sensitive topic. I don’t want to intrude on your personal life or tell you what to do.”
- The “do” statement explains what you do intend: “I just want to hear your perspective. I’ll respect your choices.”
Encourage your daughter to explore both sides of the issue. “Please tell me how you see your health—what’s working for you, and what’s not.” Then stop talking and let your daughter respond.
Don’t push your perspective. A mistake we often make is to state our position in a way that forces the other person to take the other side. Here’s an example of what that would sound like.
Parent: “If you don’t begin exercising and eating right, it could have long-term impacts on your health and happiness.”
Daughter: “Not necessarily. I’m happy the way I am. Besides, with my school schedule, I don’t have time to cook food and go to the gym.”
You have advocated for one side and forced your daughter to advocate for the other side. And guess who’s going to win this argument?
Focus on Mutual Purpose. Listen for what is working, rather than for what is not. Your daughter is likely to focus on the challenges that prevent her from living a healthy lifestyle. A good response from you would be, “Are you saying that you’re motivated to work on your health, but you’re struggling with how to do it?” If your daughter says she is motivated but unable, then you can offer your support and she might accept it.
Know your limits and be willing to step back. There is a good chance your daughter won’t want to have this discussion with you. Even if she is concerned about her health, she might not want you to be involved. If that is the case, then I think you will be more successful if you respect her decision and back off. To you, this might feel like rejection when you are only trying to help, but please don’t take it that way. Even when your daughter shuts down the conversation, she is listening. Back off, give her some space, and allow her to think about her situation. Earn her trust by respecting her limits, and she might invite you to help her when she is ready.
Other suggestions. Are there ways you can improve your own health behaviors? For example, are you eating fruits and vegetables, watching your weight, and getting plenty of exercise? Be a modest model. Don’t talk about it, but change your own behavior. Trust that your daughter will take notice.
Change your home to make healthy eating and activities easier and more convenient. Keep fruit and vegetables visible, and make them appealing. Stop buying fatty, salty, and sugary foods. Consider replacing your plates with smaller ones and moving your TV to a less comfortable area. Introduce new, fun, muscle-powered toys.
As you prepare for this crucial conversation, please remember that all the research confirms that parents are the most influential people in their children’s lives. You can have a real and positive impact in your daughter’s life. Take the chance and make a difference.