Body-Positive Parenting during Puberty.
We hear them all the time -- the stories of young women’s experiences when their bodies began to change during puberty.
They remember the feelings of confusion and even fear of the unknown, as their bodies started to spread and grow in new places. They can still see that not-totally-disguised look of discomfort from their mom who noticed belly fat and stretch marks appearing on her child’s body for the first time. They remember the shame they felt at their eleven-year-old check up when a well-meaning pediatrician recommended cutting back on snacks and getting more exercise, noting how much weight they had gained since last year’s visit. They still hear those comments and jokes from peers about their breasts developing faster - or slower - than everyone else’s seemed to be.
As psychotherapists who specialize in the treatment of eating disorders, we know how complicated the emotional experience of body changes during puberty can be. Excitement, fear, shame, confusion, anxiety, pride, sadness…
Change can be messy, and puberty involves some of the biggest changes a child, and their family, will ever go through.
For parents, it can bring up a lot of emotions, including a sense of loss, to see your child’s body moving farther and farther away from the little kid you’ve known and loved her whole life. Or maybe you struggle with your own body image, and it’s hard to see your daughter’s body taking on a shape that does - or doesn’t - resemble your own.
Whatever your story, we all live in a culture where beauty and health ideals tell us weight gain is dangerous, and that women’s bodies should be slender, toned, and fat-free in all the right places. We learn that women’s bodies are for looking at, and therefore should look a certain way.
We know from the research, and from the stories of so many teens and women who enter our therapy offices, that puberty is a particularly vulnerable time for developing struggles with body image and disordered eating. Both pubertal status and timing of puberty in comparison to peers have been found to influence development of eating disorders and disordered eating. In addition to environmental risk factors, genetic risk factors for eating disorders have been found to be activated during puberty.
Puberty is a sensitive and vulnerable time for body image and self esteem.
So as parents, how do we sensitively support our daughters - and navigate our own emotions - during this period of change?
We have lots of suggestions, and we will be returning to this topic time and again. But the very first thing we want parents to remember is how normal these changes are. And that beyond normal, they are remarkable and extraordinary! Our children’s bodies and selves are radically changing during puberty, and that is both normal and necessary.
50% of adult body weight is gained during puberty - and humans NEED this new weight to support the incredible growth that occurs during puberty.
Teens’ brains are developing and changing rapidly, their bodies are growing and strengthening bones that will carry them for the rest of their lives, and they are turning on a new hormone system that will allow them to create their own families one day.
As our daughters embark on the incredible journey of moving into adolescence and adulthood, remember that it takes years and years - often awkward years! - and significant weight gain to support these changes.
Even before puberty begins, you can begin preparing your child - and yourself - for this process and what it might bring up, by reminding yourself that these changes are normal and expected. You can also:
Notice, point out, and combat messaging that says healthy always looks thin, and that weight gain is always negative or something to fear.
Work to create a set of family values that emphasize how healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes.
Prepare in advance for pediatrician visits where weight may be discussed, and make sure your doctor knows how you want any changes in growth to be addressed (or not) with your child.
And above all, remember to be kind to yourself! This work is hard. Don’t go at it alone. Reach out for support and find others who you can talk to about all of the joys and complexities of parenting a daughter during this stage of life.
The Full Bloom Project is a research-informed body-positive parenting resource—designed by parents, for parents founded by Zoë Bisbing, LCSW and Leslie Bloch, LCSW-R, both psychotherapists based in New York City. Click here to purchase a copy of The ABC’s of Body-Positive Parenting.