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What Do You Do If Your Child Says They're Fat? Start With These Questions

“I’m so fat.” It’s a statement many women have uttered at one point or another in their lives — myself included. The all too common phrase might come after catching a glimpse of yourself in a mirror, or simply used as a filler for any emotion that feels like dissatisfaction. A negative body image can definitely take its toll on your personal perspective, but what do you do if your child says they're fat? Experts say you have to tread lightly.

“Understandably, a parent may want to brush off this statement or disqualify it with an endearing compliment,” Shrein Bahrami, a licensed psychotherapist specializing in treating poor body image and eating disorders, tells Romper in an email interview. “It is important though to get curious with their child as to why they think this about themselves”

Bahrami, who is also the founder of Evolve Wellness Group, explains that some children might be able to state directly how they came to this belief or it may take a few inquiries by the parents to get at where it derived from. “Once they do share, parents should again be curious as to why they agree with that perception about themselves and what it actually means to be fat,” she says.

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Jill Whitney, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Connecticut and blogger at Keep The Talk Going, agrees, adding that a parent's first question might be, "What makes you think that?" Find out if someone has been teasing your child, or if they are noticing models' bodies on television and in advertisements. You should also assess if they may have heard adults complaining about being fat.

"Look in the mirror, metaphorically," Whitney tells Romper in an email interview. "Do you obsess about your weight? Do you complain about being fat or comment negatively about heavier people? Do you count calories? Your child notices and internalizes this. The healthier your own relationship with food and weight, the better your child's is likely to be."

Parenting coach Elisabeth Stitt explains the reason for this is because, while the media plays a role in forming your kids’ views, your children are sponges who pick up on your attitude. "Every time you comment on someone’s body, whether it is someone you know in person or someone you see on television, you are building your child’s crib sheet of what bodies should look like," she tells Romper in an email interview. "A comment said with disapproval that your neighbor 'looks like she has gained some weight' tells your child that you would disapprove of her gaining some weight, perhaps at a stage in her development when she should expect to be putting on some weight before adolescence. That is probably not what you meant, but kids have a tendency to overgeneralize without our realizing it."

Most importantly, Stitt says, parents need to become comfortable with their own bodies. "Media influence is big, but your own confidence in and enjoyment of your body is even bigger," she says.

Whitney says a good way to do this is by focusing on why healthy foods give us strong bodies, as opposed to their calorie contents or ability to lead you toward your perceived ideal body. She says kids should be encouraged to move around in whatever way is fun for them, whether that's something organized like soccer or dance lessons, or just running around outside. When it comes to food, consider saying things like, "I love this broccoli because it makes my muscles strong!"

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If you believe your child may have an issue with their weight, then Whitney says you will want to focus even more on healthy choices and exercise — not in a punitive way, but in a coaching and supportive way. "Say 'I love you, and I want you to be healthy and feel good about your body. Let's think about what might help,'" she says, adding that a parent might suggest a bike ride or working together on healthy recipes.

In addition to saying things that start with "I'm proud of myself because ..." or "I'm good at [physical activity]," be sure to also say things that illustrate your shortcomings. Telling your child things like, "sometimes I feel insecure," will make them feel like there is room for imperfection.

And that's as perfectly imperfect as it gets.

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