Body Image Workshop Part 5: A Parent’s Guide to Talking About Body Image – Ages 9-12

by Marci Warhaft-Nadler

Do These Hormones Make Me Look Fat?

Last week, a friend of mine told me that her 8 year old daughter, planted her feet in the ground and shouted, “I don’t want to grow up!” When her mom asked her WHY not, she answered,” I don’t want to grow up because Grownups are FAT and I don’t want to be fat!”

Yikes!  Where do I begin?

In this case, it was easy to figure out where the fear came from, as she comes from a long line of yo-yo dieters  and “fat talk” is commonplace in her household. By seeing the adults in her life focus on body shape and weight, she’s started to develop an unhealthy relationship with food and her body. Sadly, this isn’t unusual, especially at her age.

The tween years are tough; not just for the kids experiencing them, but also for their parents, who are struggling to find ways to make things a little easier for them. Not only are kids this age still dealing with the same pressures from the media, society and peers that have surrounded them up to this point, but now they’ve got the added stress that comes from more homework, possible transition to middle school, exposure to dangerous behaviours, and, probably the scariest challenge of all, PUBERTY!

Puberty generally occurs between the ages of 8-12 and is essentially the time when a young girl’s body prepares itself for womanhood. While many classrooms discuss most of the changes that kids go through during this time, one area that is definitely not talked about enough is puberty-related weight gain.

Weight gain isn’t only to be expected, by is also a NECCESSARY part of the growth process and the last thing we want to do is impede that process in any way, shape or form. Girls should expect to gain weight, especially around their hips and breasts, but too many of them panic at the first sign of their clothes getting tighter.

I recently heard from the mother of a 12 year old girl who was worried about the fact that even though her daughter ate well and was very active, she was noticing some weight gain around her stomach. I reminded her of what she said about her daughter eating well and exercising and assured her that what was happening to her daughter was completely healthy and the worst thing to do would be to say anything to make her self-conscious about it.

You do NOT, I repeat do NOT want to put your child on any kind of diet while they’re bodies are doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing or it could result in a skewed metabolism causing a life filled with weight and body image issues. However, it’s the perfect time to talk about healthy lifestyle choices.

Some tips:

1)  As always, the conversation should never be about weight, but should focus on health. It’s a great idea to talk to your child about all the work that their body is doing and how important it is to fuel it with a variety of high quality foods that will help it grow in the strongest, healthiest way possible. Explain that their bones and muscles need physical activity to function properly. Puberty is a very EMOTIONAL time and we want to try and avoid making emotional connections to food for as long as we can.

2)  Make healthy, fun foods available 24/7. Growing kids are hungry kids, by making healthier options easily accessible, you can avoid them filling up on empty calories. For great snack ideas, check out:

3)  Kids pick up on EVERYTHING, so make sure they hear you compliment people on their actions instead of their looks; this will remind them that what they do is far more important than how they look.

4)  Encourage your kids to find a hobby or several!  Peers play a HUGE role in their lives at this age and bullying becomes more of an issue. It’s crucial that they find extracurricular activities that give them a sense of pride outside of their friendships. Try all types of things; you never know what will be the perfect fit. Kids have so many choices these days, from art classes to soccer to Karate and everything in between!

5)  While sports like dance, gymnastics and figure skating offer a fun way to stay fit, it’s important to understand that activities that promote extreme thinness can create unhealthy body preoccupation.  If your child wants to participate in sports like these, make sure you are comfortable with their coach and that they are on the same page as you as far as healthy bodies go. A good coach won’t pressure your child to lose weight or even mention weight at all.

Keep the lines of communication open between you and your child. Remind them that strong, healthy bodies need to be nurtured not deprived.

The important message here is that puberty is not something negative to be feared, but something positive to be celebrated!

{Melissa adds: I started going through puberty around age 11-12ish, and it was a hard transition to go from a stick-thin kid to a curvy young teen. It helped when my mom showed me photos of her during that time, and I was able to see my body following her genetics. It gave me some perspective that my body looked just the way it was supposed to.}

You can find the entire Body Image Workshop series here.

Feel free to leave a question in the Comments section, or a topic you’d like more information on when it comes to your kids and body image.


Marci Warhaft-Nadler is a certified fitness instructor and body image consultant. After overcoming her own body image and eating disorder issues, Marci created her Fit vs Fiction program to tear down the dangerous myths related to beauty and fitness and empower kids with the self-esteem they need to tune out negative messages and be proud of who they are instead of judging themselves for who they think they’re not. 

Self-worth should not be measured in pounds!