Dear Coffey –
I heard you on a podcast recently and decided to reach out. My 12-year-old stepdaughter experienced a lot of trauma before I came into her life several years ago. She was already considerably overweight when I met her. She already hated her body. It’s such a sensitive issue, especially considering her age and delicate sense of self. The heavier she gets, the more unhappy she is, and the less interested she is in even going for a walk with the family. I try to set a good example for her and my other kids. How else can I help this young girl who I love so much?
Thank you for any insights and suggestions!
Hey there, Stepmom –
Thanks for taking a chance and emailing me. You’re not alone. Many women I work with have the same concerns for their daughters and stepdaughters.
Once we’ve experienced trauma, it informs our every thought, emotion, and decision, whether or not we’re conscious of it. The younger we were when we were traumatized, the less conscious we are of its grip and influence, because we can’t remember a time when we were free of the fear and discomfort the body took on when those wounds were inflicted.
It’s hard to pinpoint what specific trauma sparked my reckless, dangerous relationship to food and eating. That said, my issues around food weren’t all based in trauma. I was heavy when I was young, and I was often mocked about being fat by peers and family. At the same time, I was surrounded by women who struggled with their weight and obsessed over what and when and how they ate. If I was eating with my mother and she was on a diet, food was a pleasureless necessity. If I was with my grandmother and she wanted to make me smile or shut me up for a while, food was a gift that I could have in almost any quantity.
While other kids were playing sports or falling in love with music or roller skates, I was thinking about food – how to eat less, how to get more. Food enabled me to change my reality – to feel in control when I felt out of control, or to distract myself when life got all lifey. It entertained me when I was bored, distracted me when I was depressed, and made special occasions feel even more special.
I started young, and kept compulsively overeating despite being less and less comfortable in my body.
I didn’t have much else going on, so I was way more interested in being able to alter my reality than I was in engaging with it.
This was still true after I hit a bottom and decided to have weight loss surgery. After rapid initial weight loss, I began to gain my weight back.
It wasn’t until I changed how and why I made decisions that I my body settled into its best, most comfortable weight. Even through two pregnancies, I’ve maintained a weight I love for well over ten years, but how and why I ate was only one small piece. I changed how and why I did everything, shifting my focus away from quick, cheap relief onto taking the best care of myself and my body that I was capable of, one choice at a time.
Living with care, it didn’t take long for my life to take priority over my ability to escape it. With care, not shame, as my driving force, my life had become a pleasure to wake up to.
This all happened for me in my mid-to-late 20s. Your stepdaughter is 12. Though she’s young, most of who she is is already written, but her future is hers to create. You can’t make her lose weight or become an active person – only she can do that. You can’t make her love herself or her body – only she can do that. These are incredibly hard truths for a parent to accept. But you can help set her up for self-love, self-care, and self-actualization down the road. Here’s four things you can do to support your stepdaughter growing into her best self, living a life she loves in a body she loves, starting today:
Be a model of strong self-care
Being told she should exercise “because it’s good for her” isn’t likely to get her moving, but hearing you talk openly about why you’re active and the deep pleasure activity brings you may, so spell it out. Before you go for your daily walk, tell her why it’s a priority for you (“Because I deserve fresh air and freedom after a long day at work”). After you’re done, tell her how good you feel, inside and out. We don’t hesitate to talk about our stress and our perceived shortcomings, so talking about the pleasure we get from solid self-care can help balance the scales and normalize the act of taking good care of ourselves and our bodies.
Encourage exploration and support her interests
I’ve worked with thousands of women to help them stop sabotaging themselves and their health, especially around food. What’s become clear in my 10+ years of doing this work is that compulsive overeating – and most other problematic behaviors – become less of an issue the more we engage with things that light us up. I’ve coached women whose antidotes to compulsive overeating included interior design, knitting, match-making, writing novels, organizing protests, and shooting documentaries on their iPhones. If your stepdaughter is showing interest in something creative, something political, or something academic – anything – support her. Help her connect with groups, find resources, and get her hands dirty in whatever lights her up. Don’t worry if her interests change every month. She’s 12 – explore the possibilities of who she might be.
Communicate unconditional love
Lots of the women I work with trace their addiction and compulsion issues back to a void they remember feeling since childhood – a lack of love. This critical missing piece leads to feelings of unworthiness and shame in adulthood; painful feelings that beg relief. So we binge, we drink, we waste money and time – all of which affords us a moment of peace but ultimately leaves us in more pain. Your stepdaughter isn’t a baby anymore, and her concept of self-worth may already be written, but you can still actively communicate your love for her, and in doing so, give her evidence that she was, and is, worthy of love and belonging – no matter what she weighs. And don’t worry – you don’t have to prance around the house tossing rose petals and singing I love yous. You can communicate love just by taking a second to really look at her and smile when she walks in the door.
Delay/limit social media exposure
Recent studies have shown that young people’s smartphone use – specifically social media engagement – correlates to extreme spikes in depression, social anxiety, and even suicide, and severe plummets in physical activity and face-to-face social engagement. Increased social media exposure also appears to correlate to a steady rise in childhood obesity. Delaying the start of social media / smartphone use is a good idea if your stepdaughter doesn’t already have a smartphone . A friend of mine has teen daughters, and their agreement is that the girls can get smartphones – and start their own social media profiles – when they’re working and can afford to pay for them, a plan I intend to use with my own girls, now just 5 and 6 years old. Whether or not she’s on social media, talk to her openly about what it is and why it’s potentially dangerous. Set clear limits on when and how she can use social media. Outline and follow through on consequences if she doesn’t respect the limits.
When new loves come into our lives – especially children – it’s normal and natural to want to heal all their old wounds. Sadly, we don’t have the power to change the past. But we have the power in this moment and moving forward to pay attention, to selflessly provide care and support, and to set healthy boundaries (if only so kids can butt their heads against them). Of course, there’s no better way to teach these skills – and show kids, our own and/or our partner’s, their own inherent worth – than by example.
If you’re inclined to go deeper and learn tools you can pass on to your stepdaughter that will help her enjoy taking great care of herself and her body, considering spending just one hour at one of my free, online workshops. There I’ll explain why it is that we struggle so much to make and keep healthy, loving commitments. I’ll also introduce you to my Pleasure Principles course. Hundreds of mothers practice the Principles to enjoy taking better care of themselves, and many use the Principles to teach their kids – especially their daughters – how to enjoy making their own best, healthiest choices.
In the meantime, be present, loving, and patient with your stepdaughter. Continue to set a consistently healthy, caring example for her, love her madly, be there when she needs you, set limits where appropriate. Rinse and repeat as she slowly grows into herself. And keep me in the loop – I’d love to hear how she, and you, are doing.
All the best to your and your fam-