Tell MeAbout It

Hax: Father worries for couch-potato daughter

July 21, 2013 

Dear Carolyn: I am the father of a 13-year-old daughter who is not very active. She would rather sit on the couch and watch TV than do anything else, whereas most of her friends play sports or do other exercise-related activities. My wife and I are concerned because she has gained 20 pounds over the last 18 months or so, now has a noticeable belly, and her clothes are obviously tighter. I think her metabolism has dramatically slowed since she hit puberty about two years ago.

My wife and I have been very careful not to say anything about her appearance or her weight. We have always tried to instill good eating habits, and we tell her she needs to exercise more for her overall health rather than weight loss. Unfortunately, she is not very receptive to our suggestions and we have a lot of heated discussions about it. My daughter doesn’t seem to understand the relationship between food, exercise and her body.

My wife has talked to the pediatrician to help us discuss this with my daughter. The doctor told my daughter that she needs to exercise for a minimum of 30 minutes a day, five days a week. My wife and my daughter recently started going to aerobics classes together two to three times a week, which they both enjoy. The days they don’t do aerobics are causing a lot of friction. We have been happy if she does the elliptical machine in our home or plays an active game like Just Dance on the Wii. However, it is ALWAYS a struggle and we usually have to take away her phone before she will agree to exercise.

I used to think my wife and I were approaching the issue appropriately, but lately I find that we are being overly critical regarding portion control and snacking. We are at our wits’ end.

The ultimate goal is to make sure our daughter leads a healthy, active lifestyle. My biggest fear is that we inadvertently create self-esteem or body-image issues if we are not careful. Do you have any thoughts or suggestions about how to handle this? – Concerned Dad

Carolyn Says: You have a daughter who, at 13, has no interest in her world besides what comes off a screen, and you’re worried about 20 pounds? If she were thin, TV as life purpose would fly?

While you still have the (apparently underused) ability to say, “No TV except (conditions here),” your entire focus needs to be on your daughter’s emotional and intellectual health. How did she get to the point where she has no outside interests or hobbies, no passions, no non-couch activities like “most of her friends”?

Have you encouraged hobbies or skills? Have you equipped her to be an active adult, by providing experience, lessons and/or family togetherness in lifetime pursuits like hiking, biking, tennis, golf, swimming or whatever regional sports you have access to, like surfing, skiing, rowing, climbing? Even though some can be prohibitively expensive, often their governing bodies have a charitable arm that offers low-cost youth programs to encourage the growth of their sport.

And have you equipped her to push herself, explore, try-fail-recover-repeat?

You do not get to decide what your daughter enjoys doing, and those forced aerobics can reap as much resentment as fitness. But you do get to say that sitting around the house being passively entertained is a waste of her gifts, a waste of time, a waste of life. (Sugar-coat as needed.)

You do get to say, yes, it can be difficult to figure out just what each of us has to offer. You can also say that the trial-and-error process can be either frustrating or interesting and rewarding, depending on how we approach it. You can say you will follow her lead and encourage and support whatever productive endeavor she chooses to pursue.

And you can say your only requirement is that she pursue something. Art, music, books, dance, sports, recreation, crafts, volunteer work, paid work (dog-walking, baby-sitting, lawn-mowing) …? Knitting for wounded troops or the homeless or NICU babies, say, can make even TV worship productive.

After stating your do-something requirement, back off and back it up simultaneously by giving her a choice between a day or two to come up with ideas of her own, or a brainstorming session where you and she think up some possibilities. If she chooses (a), then explain that coming up empty on ideas will bring on (b).

Even if your mouths never form the word, aerobics, ellipticals, portion control and snack-policing scream, “FAT”! Your daughter is inert, not stupid, and surely sees through the “active lifestyle” spin.

Maybe she’s ignorant of food-body connections, but her parents don’t seem to understand the relationship between food and boredom (and depression). So please consider a “purposeful lifestyle” goal. A kid who’s occupied and engaged rarely snacks till her clothes give out.

Send email to Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com.

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