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Mothers, Daughters and Food: Handing Over the Reigns

Karen, an attractive, fit and fashionable 48-year-old mother, has come to get help for her 17-year-old daughter Ashley’s weight problem.  “I’m really worried about her health. She’s put on 30 pounds since middle school.  She’s a bright and beautiful girl, but her weight is making her miserable,” she told me. “She’s never had a boyfriend and she’s avoiding her friends.  Every time she gets in the car, she’s buying junk food. I’ve tried dieting with her, signing her up for gym memberships and personal trainers. I’ve offered to buy her a new wardrobe if she lost weight.  Nothing motivates her! I’m afraid whatever I do is only making things worse.”

The next week, I hear Ashley’s story. She’s overcome with tears as she describes her struggles with food and her mom.  Perceptive, sensitive and academically accomplished, she’s very hard on herself. “I can’t understand why I can’t get my act together in this one area!”  She feels hurt by her mother’s pressure to lose weight. To Ashley, whether it’s shopping together, having a meal, or going for a walk, it feels like every encounter is an opportunity for her to feel judged by her mom.  

Ashley’s mother’s concern about her weight is an octopus whose tentacles wind through every interaction, choking the fun out of their relationship. Her mother’s unspoken message is: “I’m disappointed and embarrassed by you. Something’s wrong with you, but I’m at a loss.”

This painful pattern between Karen and Ashley is the age-old dance of millions of mothers and daughters. 

To the Moms: Let Go.

Your daughter’s problem is not that she isn’t motivated enough. She doesn’t need to be “incentivized” with clothes, trips or cash if she drops weight. Believe me, she wants it as much as you do.

What’s happened is that your daughter’s struggle with food  -- an area that should be a negotiation among her head, her belly and her heart -- has become a relationship issue between the two of you. Over the years, your concern and disappointment in her weight has taken up residency in your daughter’s psyche. Your feelings are so salient that she can’t discern the subtle signals in her own body. 

You may be a successful, take-charge woman, used to influencing outcomes. But as difficult as it may be to accept, this one’s out of your hands.  Perhaps you’ve struggled with your own weight issues. Your fear for your daughter has intensified your involvement in her problem. You’d do anything to prevent her from suffering the way you have.  Or perhaps you’ve never had food issues and your daughter’s drama is a mystery to you.  Maybe you can eat and exercise without all the fuss, and you view her struggle as a character flaw. 

Whatever your story about food, you can’t solve her problem.  It’s time for you to let go. 

When I say “let go,” I mean not offering to diet with her, not cutting out weight loss articles for her, not asking after her walk how many miles she went. It means not sighing when she reaches for seconds or stiffening when she orders fries. It means not showing off your skinny jeans or bragging about how great you feel after your workout. It means never uttering, “Are you sure you really need that?”

Letting go means trusting that she’ll figure out her weight issues on her own time table.  It means accepting that this might take years, not weeks or even months. 

At the same time, it doesn’t mean denying support if she ASKS for it. If she can’t afford a dietician, therapist or personal trainer and you can, this could be a meaningful gift, if it’s freely given.  No checking in about “how it’s going,” with the implication “I better see results on the scale.” If that’s your mind-set, don’t bother. It will only become another place for her rebellious instincts to sabotage the process.

Here’s the New Paradigm: your role is to develop a more loving and connected relationship with her, whatever her size. This means consciously, deliberately never implying that her value goes up as the number on the scale goes down. She gets that message every day in the culture. Your role is to be a buffer –to detach her worth from her weight.    

To the Daughters: Grab the Reigns and Take Five Steps

Step 1: Get your Mom out of your food. Your relationship with your body is yours and yours alone. That means doing the right thing for your body, not rebelling against your “controlling mom” by eating junk and lying around. Grab the reigns. Instead of rebelling against her, rebel against the diet mentality...which leads to Step 2.

Step 2: No more counting points, fat grams, pants sizes, calories and pounds. Letting go of the numbers might seem scary, but be honest: all that counting only raises your anxiety, which makes you want to eat! Steps 1 and 2 should lower your anxiety. Good.  Breathe. 

Step 3: Become a Belly Whisperer by learning to discern the signals in your gut. It’s recognizing when you’re eating past the point of satiety, and when you’re eating because you’re procrastinating, rebelling, rewarding yourself, or taking a break. At this Step you’ll still do all these things, but you’ll watch yourself do it and imagine better alternatives.  Even if you still choose to eat, the key is that you’re turning your compulsion into a choice.  Even if nothing changes behaviorally, you’re making progress. These deeper changes must take place in order for lasting behavioral (and weight) changes to occur. 

Step 4: Make a different choice.  Instead of eating when you feel like procrastinating, try painting your toenails or reading a magazine instead.  You’ll notice you feel better.  The new choice will reinforce itself, making it easier to do it again.      

Step 5:  Choose healthier foods because you feel better when you eat better. This feels very different from eating healthy because you’re “on a diet” or because your mom is watching. By the time you get to this step, the change in your eating is organic and based on self-love rather than a capitulation to your mom’s wishes.  Organic changes stick.  But getting to Step 5 takes time, so be patient!    

A final word to you both:

Getting the Food Fights out of your relationship is an important developmental milestone in the lifecycle of the mother-daughter relationship.  From the day a little girl is born, the mother-child bond is embodied through food and feeding. The path to a healthy separation around food issues can be bumpy and painful, but the rewards to you as individuals and for your relationship are well worth the struggle!

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