Karyn Langhorne of Washington, DC, was shocked when her athletic 8-year-old daughter, Sierra, asked her if she was getting fat. "She was wearing a two-piece bathing suit and had pinched up a little roll of skin on her belly. When I assured her she wasn't, she asked about her thighs and hips!" recalls Langhorne.
Sierra's not alone in her concern. Body-image issues are common in preteen girls, and boys stress about how they look, too. In fact, recent research from the National Eating Disorders Association shows that 42 percent of kids in first through third grade wish they were thinner. Since you can't shield your child entirely from the images of super-thin women on TV and elsewhere that often fuel those "Am I fat?" questions, here's what you can do if she starts to worry about her weight:
Probe a little. Sometimes girls say they dislike their bodies when they're actually trying to express anxiety about the changes of puberty. By saying "What don't you like about it?" or "Really? Why is that?" you can get to the heart of the issue and be better able to help her feel more confident.
Avoid just waving away her concerns. It'll make her feel like you're not listening if you only say "But you're not fat!" Even if her comments seem unreasonable, let her get them out, and then tell her why you think she's beautiful just as she is.
Stress good health, not weight. If your daughter isn't satisfied with talking or says she wants to start a diet, offer to speed-walk, swim, or go biking with her instead -- but don't involve a scale or food restrictions in any of it. Explain that you're joining her exercise efforts not because you agree that she needs to be smaller, but because it's a good way to take care of her body. Keep an eye out for signs of obsessive exercise, too.
Check your message. You may not be telling your child outright that she should watch her weight, but does she often hear you say you feel fat or wish you wore a smaller size? Remember what a powerful role model you are to your daughter -- and consider her your best reason not to stress over your own extra pounds.