Crucial Skills®

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My Adult Daughter is Severely Overweight. What Can I Do?

Dear Crucial Skills,

I have a 38-year-old daughter who is severely overweight and doesn’t want to hear anything about the issue. She shops doctors and has subscribed to the “anti-diet” philosophy, which I can see some value in. However, she has taken this philosophy into the realm of cultism. I do not know what to do. It is ruining her life. Please help me. Typical psychology experts have been no help to this point.

Perturbed Parent

Dear Perturbed,

You may not like what I’m about to say and end up lumping me in that group of psychology experts you’ve talked with, but please know my goal is to help, even if that means challenging you a bit.

Here’s what I think you should do: forget about changing your daughter and work on changing yourself. Her habits, however unhealthy they might be, are not your responsibility. They may have been when she was a child under your care and supervision, but given that she’s a 38-year-old adult who “doesn’t want to hear anything about the issue,” it’s time to let go and look inward.

I know how easy it can be in crucial moments to get wrapped up in thinking that if we just say the right things in the right way, we can get others to believe or behave how we’d like them to.

But the skills taught in Crucial Conversations don’t enable us to change others—that’s not their promise. They improve our ability to communicate with others, and through better communication we can increase connection, collaboration, trust, respect, and—yes—even influence. But that increased influence is a consequence of increased trust, respect, and so on. The skills are largely ineffective when our motive is to change people rather than communicate with them. When we seek the effect but step over the cause, we diminish our influence.

So how can you work on yourself? Start with Heart. This skill is foundational to all the others in Crucial Conversations because it helps us examine our motives, which shape all our words and actions. You employ this skill by turning your gaze inward and asking some honest questions. What do you ultimately want? Are you willing to risk driving a wedge in the relationship with your daughter on the chance you could say something that would improve her eating habits? Why is it so important to you that she live how you would like her to?

Given that you said your daughter “doesn’t want to hear anything about the issue,” I assume you’ve discussed or attempted to discuss it before and that it hasn’t gone well. So, in addition to getting clear on what you ultimately want, I invite you get clear on what it looks like you’ve wanted.

As you take inventory of your motives, ask yourself the following: What do my speech and behavior up to this point suggest I care about, and what do I really care about? What should I care about? In the final analysis, what really matters?

The good news is working on yourself first does not preclude communication. The point is to communicate after you’ve got your heart in a good place. When we do this, a critical shift happens: we come to the conversation with a perspective to share, not an agenda to enforce. I’m not certain this is where you’ll land (though I hope you do), but whenever I realize I’ve attempted to coerce another and then correct my motives, the next conversation I have is one in which I sincerely apologize.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not suggesting you give up loving your daughter or wanting the best for her. I’m challenging you to accept and love her as she is, unhealthy habits and all. If everybody’s weakness was overeating, we’d all be overweight.

I’m also not suggesting we can’t be a source of positive influence on the people we love most. I’m trying to highlight the difference between communicating to coerce others and communicating to share a perspective.

I have found that I can only communicate respectfully and increase my connection with others when I give up my desire to change them. And that is far more meaningful and influential than any ability to persuade them to behave how I would like them to. I believe you’ll find the same.


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18 thoughts on “My Adult Daughter is Severely Overweight. What Can I Do?”

  1. Org

    Excellent advice!!!

  2. Rinda Hensley

    As an overweight daughter to a mom that always wanted to change me: THANK YOU!!! The comments from my mother added even more to the stress and negative emotions that were causing me to overeat. Accept and love people for who they are and they will become better and flourish from your nurturing love!

    1. KTWR

      I agree with Rinda. Growing up overweight and constantly being told “I cannot have”, “I need to do”, or “wouldn’t you feel better if…” – these statements never told me I was acceptable and always told me was wasn’t. As a result it took me nearly 40 years to accept ME and find my own groove. I am still not close to “average” weight, but I eat better and love me. Just love your daughter. You didn’t fail mom; your daughter is amazing just the way she is!

    2. Rachel

      Yes! I loved my mom, but I’ll never forget the conversation (aka lecture) she tried to have with me about my weight. I asked her if she thought I didn’t know what my weight was. Then I asked her if she had the same conversation with her “overweight” friends.
      I could hear my dad in the background saying “I told you not to say that”.

  3. Tim Rinko-Gay

    I’m glad to see this post, as it’s an example of what I believe is a critically important issue to managing ourselves and our relationships. Thank you.

    As we know from the Serenity Prayer, among many other sources, one of life’s greatest challenges is recognizing and accepting where we don’t have control. It can be a great advantage to reject the status quo and to persist in our efforts to change circumstances in spite of repeated failed attempts. But we end up working against our goals when we fail to accept that something is out of our control.

    What I want to add to this discussion: I’ve found that it doesn’t work to talk about the importance of letting go without talking about the enormous barrier to letting go– the really tough emotions. In the example in this post, it’s much easier to navigate anger at one’s daughter for not listening, or even self-blame for not knowing how to make her listen, than it is to navigate being terrified of loss and heartbreak and feeling powerless. When my story is that I’m watching someone I love harm themselves, accepting that I don’t have control triggers such a flood of emotions that it’s incredibly hard to resist “lizard brain.” And I understand that for a parent, the primal instinct to jump in and save one’s child carries force I’ll never know unless I have my own kids.

    If I can’t hold and manage the flood of emotions that come with letting go, I’m fighting a losing battle. I’ll go right back into “fight” mode, which means trying to control. I believe facing and learning to navigate these tough emotions is an irreducible part of the process, and these emotional skills are not common knowledge. We need to be talking about them.

  4. Lisbeth Berger Ornstein, PhD

    As a.psychologist who has specialized in the treatment of people with eating, weight, and body image issues for over thirty years, I would caution that it is dangerous – and often incorrect – to assume that someone who is “overweight” has poor eating habits. Our understanding of how the body regulates weight is still in its infancy, but one thing is for sure – it’s about a LOT more than “poor eating habits” or “self control.” Often, people who are obese have gotten that way as a result of repeated dieting. The body regulates its weight around a genetically determined setpoint. That setpoint is often NOT what our culture has deemed desirable. People come in all shapes and sizes. When someone repeatedly tries to get their body to weigh less than the setpoint dictates, the body responds by doing what it can to get the person to return to their previous weight (I.e., making them interested in and hungry for the type and amount of food that will restore what the body thinks is the correct weight). It is evolutionarily advantageous to not lose too much weight when one is exposed to frequent famines. The body does not know the difference between a diet and a famine. Not only does it seek to return to the previous weight, but it often results in a higher weight – as if on guard for the next famine. This phenomenon is especially active in women. If women fall below a certain body fat percentage, they do not ovulate and therefore the survival of the species is at risk. Telling someone whose weight has been forced (through dieting) below what their body believes is a correct weight for them to exercise “willpower” and not eat more than a small number of calories is equivalent to telling someone who is severely dehydrated to only drink 4 ounces of water and to exercise “willpower”so as not to drink more!! I cannot begin to tell you how many obese women I have worked with whose “journey to obesity” began because they were a size 12 and they, or their mothers, were fixated on their being a size 6! The answer is, not to try to get people to lose weight, but for society to begin by accepting that people’s natural weights vary greatly just as does their height, hair color, intelligence, musical talent, etc. So much obesity could be prevented if young girls and women were not encouraged to get on the diet roller coaster to begin with!!

    1. Shelly

      Fascinating information and great advice. Thank you for sharing this.

    2. Julia

      That’s exactly what happened to me. I was 12 when my mother talked to the doctor in front of me about how overweight I was (I was a size 12). What I learned was that I wasn’t loveable unless I was thin. All my sisters struggle with this. However, their daughters do not – most of them don’t struggle with weight and their mothers/my sisters don’t make an issue out of it.

  5. robyn

    This came at a perfect time to change my tune around a difference of opinion with my partner. I wasn’t coming at it with heart, and I’m sure he felt criticized. As soon as I read this I went to him and reframed what I was saying from critical of him to sharing about my thoughts on what was important in the situation. He was totally receptive. Thank you!

  6. Sue Coore

    May I change this question slightly? My granddaughters (ages 5 and most especially the 12 year old) are headed on a path to obesity. Their parents indulge them in carbs and sweets at almost every meal. When the pediatrician brough this to their attention (a story they shared with me) they were aghast that he would “body shame” their daughter. Whether he should have spoken in front of the 12 year old is another story, but I would have taken that as an opening to talk to my daughter. The way they explained this to me, I could not pursue even a conversation with them.

    Neither parent is overweight though my DIL was and has explained how she suffered through being called terrible names in high school. Both parents work out at a gym daily. I am now known as the “healthy grandma” because we eat chicken and veggies and fruit which the younger girl loves! Without alienating either parent, how can I have a conversation to help them look at different options for their girls? Thank you!

  7. Lorraine Hallinen

    It’s interesting to read this from the perspective of someone who is dealing with a family member with addiction issues.

    We want so desperately to change our son so that he does not turn to drugs to self-medicate himself. I know that addiction is quite different in that experts warn against enabling the behavior (covering for them at work, etc.) We have not covered his behavior at all and in fact have set boundaries for what we are willing to accept. (He cannot live with us because of past behavior.)

    It is a difficult road to travel trying to stand firm in boundaries while still showing our son love and care. Just because we show support (not monetary) doesn’t mean that we accept his drug use. We want him to have someone to turn to and talk with in desperate times. When he is in jail, we will accept phone calls from him and discuss his options, but we will NOT bail him out.

    I know that it is a totally different situation, but there could be some similarities in the way that you deal with your daughter. Someone mentioned the Serenity Prayer. This was created for those dealing with difficult circumstances for which we have no control. You can only control your reactions to what is going on. You cannot control your daughter’s behavior.

  8. Jim

    The complexities of obesity make it really difficult for people to change their weight. I am just reading a book with new analysis based on current evidence by Chris van Tulliken: Ultra-Processed People. I am sure he does not have it totally right, but it is helpful to those of us who thought obesity was just about eating and activity levels.

  9. Sue

    As a mother of a morbidly obese son, who is now drawn into self harm, the advice given here is the only way to sustain any sort of relationship with your daughter. I feel like I’m in a PhD on ‘letting go’, on allowing my son to follow his path that looks nothing like my imagined one for him. Each conversation is a crucial conversation. He has to know he is loved and valued just as he is, and that I am here to respond if he reaches out. My question is ‘what do you need from me right now?’ And accepting the answer graciously and with love is all I can do. Accepting a new sort of normal and loving him regardless is all that I can ‘do’. Even though I’m incredibly sad.

  10. Connie

    Ryans advice here is excellent! I see a couple of other things to address here though…,

    1. You’re very much implying that this is a cult, and she’s being brainwashed, Perturbed Parent. And that traditional psychology hasn’t helped. Using loaded language like this implies that you are not open to accepting the answers and are looking for a particular answer from them that matches your point of view.
    2. I would suggest finding a hobby or common interest with your daughter that doesn’t revolve around food, or weight, or exercise. You need some time to rebuild trust with your daughter, and if your conversations have all skewed very negatively for both of you for awhile, having some time to build the trust together will help.

    My mother and I had a similar relationship for a long time, and psychology did help her – what we found was she was projecting her own insecurities about weight and food onto me. When we both worked together to find activities we could do without food, we rebuilt our relationship and found BOTH of us lost weight AND have a great relationship now.

  11. Elise Ford

    My brother was an alcoholic and drug addict. A family intervention and subsequent treatment saved his life. In treatment he addressed trauma and other underlying challenges that were root causes of his addiction, as well as physical health challenges and nutritional deficits. While I agree that there are many healthy body shapes and sizes, and that our culture negatively impacts self esteem and body image, I witness my adult child have an addictive relationship to food. They have been through significant trauma. They are a therapist working with youth and have a long term relationship with their own therapist. They, like my brother, are whip smart, and have done a. Lot of research on the damaging impacts of dieting, cultural confusion about physical health and more.

    They are also a stunning soul and we are close.

    The changes I witness in their eating, and their communication when we are in person together are significant. High speed, higher pitches speaking and tone of voice; frequent discussion about what they have or will eat, or about how amazing a restaurant menu item is; eating larger portion sizes, grazing on sugar, and eating throughout the day.

    From where I stand in knowing them, this pattern has emerged to a far lesser degree during other life challenges, but has never been so extreme.

    If you have ever lived with somebody, struggling with an addiction, there is a a palpable feeling along with it. The closest I can describe it is to liking it to a solar plexus craving, with an underlying anxiety. When the person is engaged in their addiction, there is a neediness, an unsettling, compulsive energy.

    It’s interesting to me that in this discussion thread, there has been no mention of addiction. Nor has there been a mention of how toxic our food has become. And how large portion sizes are promoted in restaurants across the country. In America, wheat crops are sprayed with Roundup. And even organic foods can be contaminated by air and water born chemicals. We are at an epidemic level of negative environmental impacts on the human body.

    In addition, anxiety disorders are on the rise among children, teens and adults. The way my brother dealt with his anxiety was substance abuse.

    My work with holistic education, we discuss, addictions, as stemming from a deep, emotional overwhelm. This too, is an American issue. We live in a culture where people navigate decisions from their feelings, or from their intellect, but far less often from their wisdom, or what we might call “inner knowing.“

    When this mother speaks about her desperation to help her daughter, and her fear that her daughter’s life is being ruined, I get it. She is likely watching her adult child make decisions that are hard to reverse. She may be seeing significant weight gain impact her child’s health, enjoyment, and relationships. And she is dealing with a culture that does not fully address the complexity underlying the significant weight gains in individuals that is occurring across our country. Her daughter is not alone. Many many people are living with extra body weight that is undermining their health.

    Of course, it’s always helpful to take care of ourselves as mothers, get help for our own reactions and feelings that need support, and accept reality so that we are not in reaction. But I question the advice to honor that this child is now an adult, making their own decisions. In my work, I see people make decisions from all kinds of perspectives. From their feelings, from their intellect, or from their discernment. These are very distinct.

    Addiction to drugs, and alcohol is seen as a disease in this country. And is treated as such. When addiction is driving behavior, there is the feeling of being out of control of the decision making process.

    Of course, mother love can skew reality. Love is not the same thing as doing the loving thing. Doing the living thing requires wisdom. It requires understanding the consequences of one’s actions, of being self,-observing and knowing whether one is coming from reaction, and a desire for control, or from a deep desire to support the growth and best for another.

    To the mother, who wrote, I say listen deeply to your own inner guidance, listen deeply to the inner wisdom of your daughter, who can help guide you, and do what you believe to be the wise thing. You don’t need expert online opinions. You need to trust your own knowing and your love for your daughter. And you are allowed to make mistakes in the process of honing in on what is the living thing to do here.

    Who will ever love your daughter more than you do?

    1. Kristie

      Thank you for your comment. I grew up around addicts. I have my own addictions. I recognize them in myself and I recognize addictions in others.

      My adult child struggles with food addiction. I inadvertently taught them how to ignore their feelings and use food for comfort when they were young. I now see the results of my terrible parenting and, of course, want to help. It is a rock and hard place situation. I used to ask my doctor what I should do and they said, “nothing”. My doctor told me to lose weight but could not help me to help my child have better coping mechanisms.

      Some doctors don’t appear to be equipped to deal with this issue. It was painful throughout my life to watch family members suffer from alcohol addictions, other drug addictions, gambling addictions, sex addictions, etc. It is even more painful to watch my own child suffer and not be able to say anything.

      How my child “looks” is a reflection of their addiction in the same way other addicts have very telling physical signs of their addiction.

      While people (parents) get accused of seeing only the external, that is shallow. Most of us fully understand that the external we are seeing is potential heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes, cancers, blindness, amputations, liver disease, Vitamin D deficiency which is important for bone density, hip and knee problems.

      Why is it that if our child was doing cocaine that would be completely acceptable to intervene, but when our child is eating too often, unhealthy “non” foods that lead to chronic illness, then it’s not acceptable to intervene? I think we have to find a way to revisit this mindset.

      We know there are no guarantees when we do an addiction intervention. The person might hate us and continue to use. But at least we tried. The same should apply for a food addiction intervention. We don’t know if it will change things, but watching my child slowly die in front of me from something preventable, isn’t an option.

      I’m willing to take the chance that it might backfire. I love my child too much to ignore this.

  12. Leena Chandi

    This is so difficult to do. I have an almost 21 year old daughter who lives away at university and every time she comes home she has gained more weight. She is ruining her body and as someone who has had weight issues, I know how hard it is to lose it. What is the most difficult though, is watching her make poor eating choices. She’s always been a picky eater and was so thin until about age 13-14. When she’s home, she is going to the store and buying junk food such as ice cream, chocolate and pop. She eats fried foods and hardly any vegetables. It is so hard to watch and I don’t know how to let go….

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