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‘My 10-year-old daughter says she is fat and needs to go on a diet’

Ask the Expert: ‘Her closest friend is quite skinny so I wonder if she is comparing herself to this girl’


My 10-year-old girl tells me she thinks she is fat. I try to reassure her and tell her she is lovely as she is, but I think she still ruminates and worries about it. One time she told me that she thinks she needs to go on a diet and I told her not to be silly and that she was fine the way she is.

She is not particularly overweight, maybe a bit pudgy, but not much more than many kids. Like most kids she is addicted to chocolate and sweets, but so am I. I am overweight myself and sometimes I am dieting, but I don’t make an issue of it in front of my daughter. Her closest friend is quite skinny so I wonder if she is comparing herself to this girl. I know that her friend’s parents have been worried about her being too underweight and have taken her to the GP about this in the past.

Is there anything I can do to help my daughter? I don’t want her to become worried about her body shape and thinking about dieting at a young age. However, if she is over-eating and not eating the best foods, maybe I should be doing something to change this?


Unfortunately, lots of children become self-conscious about their body shape at a young age and for some this can develop into unhealthy obsessions. A lot of this is caused by exposure to social media where unhealthy comparisons are made to celebrities and influencers, and sometimes it is caused by comparisons to real-world friends as could be the case for your daughter. Also, as your daughter goes through puberty, the accompanying hormone and body changes will likely increase her worries and self-consciousness.


You are right to not feed into your daughter’s worries and to try to reassure her about her body shape and identity. However, it is also important to not to close down the conversation. It is great that your daughter is telling you about her worries and it is useful to draw her out a bit more to get more information on what is going on in her mind. For example, when she says “I think I am fat”, take a pause and listen before you reassure. You might ask a gentle probing question such as “what makes you say that?” or “how come that is on your mind?”. The key is to be curious, interested and a good listener. Depending on what your daughter tells you, you can choose your best response. If she is comparing herself to social medial you can talk of the unreality of these images and if she is thinking of her friend you can talk about how we all come in different shapes and sizes etc. You also might also start a conversation about the body changes in puberty if that is helpful.

Also, it is important to bear in mind that your daughter could be overweight and that this might be worth checking by weighing her and working out her BMI. You want to do this in a sensitive way that is health focused and positive. If you feel uncomfortable doing this at home, arrange a visit to her GP where they can measure her BMI as part of a general health check-up.

If your daughter is overweight, you are right that drawing attention to this or putting her on a diet would be very counterproductive and likely to make her feel bad about herself. A better approach is to make healthy lifestyle changes together as a family. Without a focus on your daughter at all you could consider building new healthy habits that might benefit everyone in the family. These could include:

  1. Planning meals and taking time to eat together as a family.
  2. Having more home-cooked meals.
  3. Involving your daughter in cooking with you.
  4. Making milk and water the only drinks options at meals and throughout the day.
  5. Limiting food treats (such as sweets) to certain times (eg, late in the day).
  6. Making treats smaller (one to two squares of chocolate rather than a bar).
  7. Not having treats in the house and only buying at treat times.
  8. Identifying non-food treats and rewards you can enjoy during the day.

The key to making changes is to start small and to pick the easiest steps to take first. These can build into good habits that make the difference in the long term. The focus should be on health and enjoyment. For more information on how you can create healthy family lifestyles, please see the Healthy Families series I wrote in The Irish Times. Also, Safefood provides lots of simple and practical steps that any parents can make to improve their own and their children’s health and wellbeing – see

For more individual help, ask your GP about a referral to a dietician in primary care, who might be able to help you create an individual family plan.

  • John Sharry is clinical director of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. He is author of several parenting books including Positive Parenting and Parenting Teenagers.