Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Weighty Conversations with Your Child

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?

Worried Mother

Dear Worried,

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.

Best wishes,

Develop Your Crucial Skills

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10 thoughts on “Weighty Conversations with Your Child”

  1. Stu Peterson

    That was a compelling case study (the daughter and parent) and Maxfield’s advice is eye-opening to me and persuasive. Thanks you. – SP … a parent and manager

  2. Teresa

    When the conversation is done, remember she has to own this. As someone who works in the industry, the people that are successful with this are the people who own if, if she does it to make you happy, it’s tough to stick with it.

  3. larajf

    I think the mom also needs to be open to hearing things she may not like. What if the weight is used by the daughter to hide because she was molested or raped? And as Teresa mentioned, it’s ultimately up to the daughter whether she chooses to do something or not.

  4. Sharon Campbell

    It is also entirely possible that this daughter has an autoimmune disease, or Lyme disease, or some other slowly debilitating condition. Depression is also a possibility. I know that graduate school is (or should be) demanding, and social life is usually very limited. I know that if I were 24 and living at home with a parent who “discuss[es] healthy eating at the dinner table” I would be even more depressed. I can recognize criticism when I hear it. If her health is fine, including her mental health, and you know it because she has had a complete physical, including labs and a look for any autoimmune markers, especially if there are these diseases in the family, then consider that there are major exaggerations of the purported health effects of “obesity,” and leave her alone until she reaches a point where it is important enough to her to lose weight.

    In the meantime, before you do anything else, read some books. I recommend
    Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss—and the Myths and Realities of Dieting by Gina Kolata

    Fat: A Cultural History of Obesity The modern world is faced with a terrifying new ‘disease’, that of ‘obesity’. As people get fatter, we have come to see excess weight as unhealthy, morally repugnant and socially damaging. Fat it seems has long been a national problem and each age, culture and tradition have all defined a point beyond which excess weight is unacceptable, ugly or corrupting.

    This fascinating new book by Sander Gilman looks at the interweaving of fact and fiction about obesity, tracing public concern from the mid-nineteenth century to the modern day. He looks critically at the source of our anxieties, covering issues such as childhood obesity, the production of food, media coverage of the subject and the emergence of obesity in modern China. Written as a cultural history, the book is particularly concerned with the cultural meanings that have been attached to obesity over time and to explore the implications of these meanings for wider society. The history of these debates is the history of fat in culture, from nineteenth-century opera to our global dieting obsession. Fat, A Cultural History of Obesity is a vivid and absorbing cultural guide to one of the most important topics in modern society.

    The Obesity Epidemic: Science, Morality and Ideology The Obesity Epidemic adds a much-needed voice of skepticism to the increasingly alarmist debate about weight and health. Gard and Wright show that “obesity” is above all a deeply problematic cultural and political concept, making clear that the social meaning of fat is determined largely by moral and ideological agendas — agendas that are all the more powerful because they cloak themselves in the mantle of objective science and public health. Indeed, this book demonstrates how and why concepts such as “science” and “health” are themselves far more problematic than those who invoke them like to admit. THE OBESITY EPIDEMIC is a superb contribution to the sociology of knowledge, and an essential text for anyone who wants to understand the current moral panic over fat.

    The Obesity Myth:
    Why America’s Obsession with Weight is Hazardous to Your Health;
    Campos makes his case against the ;fat kills ; dogma with unimpeachable evidence. The Obesity Mythshould be required reading for every health professional in America. I believe any open-minded person who reads this book will conclude that we’ve been duped by a pack of self-serving lies. And we cannot get at the truth without first recognizing those lies. The Obesity Mythis a great place to start. ; ;Glenn A. Gaesser, Ph.D., professor and director, Kinesiology Program, University of Virginia Is your weight hazardous to your health? According to public-health authorities, 65 percent of us are overweight. Every day, we are bombarded with dire warnings about America’s ;obesity epidemic. ; Close to half of the adult population is dieting, obsessed with achieving an arbitrary ;ideal weight. ; Yet studies show that a moderately active larger person is likely to be far healthier (and to live longer) than someone who is thin but sedentary. And contrary to what the fifty-billion-dollar-per-year weight-loss industry would have us believe medical science has not yet come up with a way to make people thin. After years spent scrutinizing medical studies and interviewing leading doctors, scientists, eating- disorder specialists, and psychiatrists, Professor Paul Campos is here to lead the backlash against weight hysteria ;and to show that we can safeguard our health without obsessing about the numbers on the scale. But The Obesity Mythis not just a compelling argument, grounded in the latest scientific research; it’s also a provocative, wry exposé of the culture that feeds on our self-defeating war on fat. Campos will show: * How the nation’s most prestigious and trusted media sources consistently misinform the public about obesity * What the movie industry’s love affair with the ;fat suit ; tells us about the relationship between racial- and body-based prejudice in America * How the skinny elite ;with their ;supersized ; lifestyles and gas-guzzling SUVs ;project their anxieties about overconsumption on the poorer and heavier underclass * How weight-loss mania fueled the impeachment of Bill Clinton In this paradigm-busting read, Professor Campos challenges the conventional wisdom regarding the medical, political, and cultural meaning of weight and brings a rational and compelling new voice to America’s increasingly irrational weight debate.

  5. Michele

    She’s an adult not a child anymore. Mom needs to mind her own business. Believe me the daughter knows she has a weight problem. Mom needs to stop being controlling and that could be one of the problems why the daughter is overweight. She will loose weight when she is good and ready and that might be never.

    1. Oli

      @Michele: you expressed my thought. The daughter knows she’s overweight. She has to buy clothes that are large and evaluate how she looks in them. Mom needs to “let go”. Something will catch up with the daughter forcing a decision. Diabetes warnings from her doctor, for example. Something other than mom will force her into a decision that she will “own”. It’s her life, not mom’s. Mom obviously has “dreams” for her daughter’s social life and employment which need to give way to her daughter making the choices.

  6. spark

    One other thing to consider is that weight can be an outcome of stress, depression or other issues. A huge miss that many of us make is teaching our children to fit into a societal norm instead of finding their strength in whatever from it may be. If she is a strong, confident, overweight person, then she will still have meaningful relationships and great opportunities in the workplace. Her confidence and knowledge base will make her attractive to employers. Help her find her love of self and the rest will come (even if not in the time frame you wish for). Best of luck!!

  7. Carol Jones

    There is no reason why parents should have to tip-toe around adult children still living at home. If my children (I have 8) choose as adults to self destruct, they may not do it with MY TV, MY food, MY computer, MY beds, MY couches, or in my home. If they choose to self-destruct they must go away and do it somewhere else – not under my nose. I think the rules change drastically when children become adults. Parents should not set themselves up to be held hostage by errant adult children. I say, “You may stay only if you repent and allow me to help you.” In other words, “Shape up or ship out.” Why should parents bite their tongues and tip toe around adult children bent on self destruction for ANY reason? Your suggested conversation would best be used on a spouse. Once children reach 18, parental rights kick in and children should recognize that. Their right to choose in a LOT of things ends if they are still in their parents’ home. If the overweight daughter choose to remain fat, fine, let her do it on her nickel, in her own home, on her own couch with her own TV. Parents have given it their best shot, now it’s time to move on and find joy wherever they can find it if it doesn’t come from adult children. I won’t allow my adult children to do anything in my home I wouldn’t let any other adult visitor do.

  8. Sharon Campbell

    You are assuming, Carol, that the daughter is “self-destructing.” You assume that she is “choosing to remain fat.”

    Remember what “assume” means!

  9. Sharon Campbell

    So, Carol, you wouldn’t allow an adult who is overweight visit! Wow!

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