I was asked this tricky question recently. It’s a thorny issue, and there is no simple answer. I’ve given some ideas here, which are to do with your relationship with your daughter (or other loved one) and her life stage. If you’re reading this and have something to add please email me firstname.lastname@example.org as I’m interested in anything else that would help anyone asking a similar question. Of course, there are 2 sides to this issue… I wrote a blog article just before christmas last year about the other side of this coin – What to say when people comment on your weight. The link to that other article is below.
Do you have any tips for me on how to help my daughter, Bea, who is in her early 20s and has been gaining weight since she left home at 18 years old? I’m very worried about Bea’s weight gain and about her eating habits. When she comes home for holidays and goes supermarket shopping with me, she puts lots of crisps and biscuits in the trolley which I feel I shouldn’t buy, but do because I’m worried about starting an argument. I’m worried that she will harm her health if she keeps gaining weight, but I’m not sure what I should do. Bea’s mother and I are divorced and I’m married to Suzie who has a good relationship with Bea, and she isn’t sure whether addressing my concerns directly would be a good idea or not.
What you’re talking about here is how to address something that you expect won’t be welcomed. Basically, what someone else eats is their business, and theirs alone, but eating and weight has become such an emotive issue that if someone close to us gains weight, we may want to say or do something. In a world where it’s easy to overeat, yet we’re bombarded daily with warnings about how risky it is to our health to be overweight, the stakes seem high.
Keep your eye on the bigger picture
The first thing I’d say is that there won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution to this question. But focusing in on the unhealthy snacks in the shopping trolley may simply create a battleground where all that’s achieved is an unhappy stalemate. It may be more helpful to step back and think about the bigger picture – both what is happening in Bea’s life generally at the moment and your changing relationship with her.
I don’t know the back-story of your relationship with Bea as she was growing up, or Bea’s experiences since she left home. Bea might be reacting to the freedom of leaving home and being able to choose what and when to eat. She might be using food as a rebellion against being told what to do, or it may be a way of managing difficult feelings. Or then again, perhaps she’s been prescribed medication which is leading to weight gain.
But whatever else is going on, Bea is at the developmental stage in her life which is about leaving home and finding her niche in the world. The psychologist Erik Erikson described 8 stages of psychosocial development from birth to old age and suggested that each stage has its own task, which needs to be negotiated fairly well in order to achieve a sense of wellbeing. In her early 20s Bea is in the “Young Adult” stage, where the task is to find your own place in the world, particularly through establishing a stable love relationship and/or satisfying work/occupation. It’s not clear from your question whether Bea is unhappy with her weight or not, and how she is finding life in her early 20s generally.
You have two types of options
Option 1: Bring up the subject of eating and weight
If you do decide to say something to Bea, introduce it in a nice way, briefly and don’t overload it with emotional stuff. Choose a situation where you can both easily switch to doing something else so the subject can be changed easily if raising it isn’t welcome. It may be a good idea to think about where to start this conversation – neutral territory might help. Gauge when to raise it, give her a way out so she’s not backed into a corner and don’t drop hints – have a proper conversation.
Remember that Bea may herself be worried about her weight gain or her eating patterns, and may want to talk to someone, but that someone might not be you. If you yourself have struggled with managing your own weight, it may be easier to see things from her point of view and work out how to raise the issue sensitively. But if you haven’t, perhaps you could think about who else might be better suited to talk to her. You may be wise to think about other trusted relatives or friends who Bea might feel happy talking to. As for any of us, with any problem, we want to be able to talk to someone who shares some common ground with us, and who can be of practical help.
There’s a possibility that Bea has already experienced negative comments or reactions outside the family, in which case she might dread you adding to this. Feeling endlessly criticised never helped anyone.
If you do feel you want to talk to Bea, don’t imply you know what’s best for her or that you know the answer. If she seems to want to talk to you, ask her what would help her and then focus on working out solutions together.
If your hunch is that it would be too intrusive to raise the issue, you could decide not to say anything now, but you could work out now how you’d want to talk with her, should she herself raise the issue at any point in the future.
Option 2: Don’t say anything about eating and weight
Realise that Bea may be feeling unhappy or worried about her weight gain herself but may not be able to say, or that she might have other stuff going on that she’s not letting on about. Perhaps find opportunities to spend time with her, just the two of you, where you can talk about neutral topics or shared interests. Now she’s an adult you could ask her what she thinks about things that have nothing to do with food or emotions, so that you’re strengthening your adult-to-adult relationship with her.
An alternative, if you feel OK with this, is talking about your own life when you were her age, including the doubts and difficulties you had, which may help her to see you as someone who can relate to her world a bit. Given the pace of social and technical change since your own twenties, there will be things you can’t understand so well, and you could ask her about what it is like for her and her peers to deal with the pressures of life in 2019.
Parenting an adult is different
Above all, remember that now Bea is an adult, you have a different role in her life than when she was young. This changing relationship requires adjustment on both of your parts and it may not be an entirely smooth transition. Talking to other parents of young adults may help you to work out what you think is best for you and Bea.
What if I’m worried about someone close to me who is underweight?
There’s a very helpful book by Treasure, Smith and Crane called “Skills-based Learning for Caring for a Loved One with an Eating Disorder” which I recommend if you want help thinking about how to help a relative suffering with an eating disorder. Professor Treasure is a leading authority on the treatment of eating disorders and this is a compassionate and sensible book.
If you would like to receive my weekly newsletter on all aspects of eating and appetite, here’s the link to sign up.
If you have a question for Dr Helen McCarthy about eating and weight loss, email email@example.com
My book “How to Retrain Your Appetite: Lose weight eating all your favourite foods” is available from all major booksellers in the UK and Ireland and online.
I cannot answer queries personally. Advice given here does not constitute specific psychological or medical advice. If you are unsure about anything to do with your own weight loss plan, please consult your own doctor.