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Parenting ‘Mom, do you think I’m fat?’ How to answer your teen's touchy question

A column that tackles behavioural problems from toddlers to teens

The Problem

Your 14-year-old daughter asks you, "Mom, do you think I'm fat?"

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What can you say? It is such a loaded question.

"Yes."

"No, of course not dear."

"Well, maybe a little."

All your answers seem to spell potential disaster.

"Omigod, you think I'm fat. My own mother thinks I'm fat."

"Omigod, you're lying to me."

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"Omigod, what does 'a little' mean?"

Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

What not to do

Do not shy away from giving a direct answer.

Saying something like, "It doesn't matter what's on the outside, it matters what's on the inside," may sound good, but teens will only find it frustrating.

"I can't talk to my mom about anything serious. She won't give me a straight answer."

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Also, don't launch into a lecture on body image and pop culture or the importance of eating balanced meals. There is a time for that, but not right when she asks her question. She wants an answer, not a speech.

What to do

There is no right answer to this one. Every response could get you in trouble. Your top priority must be crafting an answer that is genuine and simple. Above all you want your child to feel that they can talk to you about difficult issues and get simple honest answers.

"I don't know, maybe a little."

"No, you don't look like you weigh too much at all."

"Yes, some people might see you as overweight."

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Then, later, at another time, you can give the lecture. You might address these issues:

With what you see in magazines, movies, TV – all those super-thin girls – it is impossible not to worry about being fat. Everybody does. It is 100-per-cent normal.

If your child really is concerned about being overweight, he or she can talk to your doctor.

And if they want to act on their worry, encourage them to learn more about health eating and the role of exercise. It doesn't hurt to have you participate in that as well.

Once you give your initial response, wait for their reaction. They will react. You may end up in a possibly emotional discussion – where you do the best you can. Remember, your biggest aim is that they continue to talk to you about difficult topics – which is precisely what is happening.

Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books including I'd Listen to My Parents If They'd Just Shut Up. E-mail him your thorny questions at awolf@globeandmail.com.

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