Discussing tanning and body image with my 8-year-old

IMG_1907Several times in the past month, Lexie has commented on being thin. She is thin – not bean-pole thin like her cousin but by no means is she fat or even slightly hefty. But sometime she mentions worrying about becoming fat. This is from the same girl who usually shows no concern about her appearance (we have to argue to get her to even comb her hair, which typically looks uncombed just five minutes after she brushes it.)

We know we need to address the issue of body image but have some concerns on how best to do that. I don’t want to focus on her weight as it is so easy for kids to latch onto some comment and blow it out of proportion in their own mind.

So I did what I always do when faced with a topic I need more information about – I began researching online how to handle this conversation with her.

Experts suggest staying positive and focusing on health, not weight. It was comforting to read that at this age (8) there is a good chance she will outgrow her concern. She is most likely reacting to peer pressure and self-consciousness rather than developing any type of disorder. While she may be picking up concerns from peers or the media, she is not likely to fully internalize these harmful messages as adolescent might do.

So how do I address this issue without intensifying or morphing it into an eating disorder? Here are a few tips…

  • Speak your message calmly and consistently (even if she disagrees with you)
  • Talk about different body types and that people come in all shapes and sizes. Some heavy people may be more fit just as someone who is thin may not be healthy.
  • Concentrate on being healthy through proper nutrition and exercising, rather than focusing on numbers or appearance

But it is more than just worrying about Lexie’s self-image. I don’t want her to be making comments to those who are not as fit as she is. A few years ago, it was not uncommon for her to point out to me people who were old, bald or fat. I don’t know that she thought of them as “bad” necessarily but did notice the difference in people. While we have always discouraged her from pointing out these physical differences, I don’t want her to shun people because they look different whether it be extra weight, that they wear glasses or have some sort of deformity. Sometimes these things are not choices the person can make.

I don’t want her to focus so much on appearance but to be able to see the person beyond. The chubby girl in her class can be creative, funny, serious, scared or a number of things. Most importantly, she can be a good friend. She needs to understand that no matter your weight, you are a valuable person.

And studies have shown that by fifth or sixth grade, the stigma that fat people are bad or inferior is often already ingrained in kids’ minds. Suggestions that I read said to ask questions such as

  • Does body weight have anything to do with whether a person is kind or mean?
  • Can you tell what a person is like just by his or her body size?
  • (when reading) How do you think the character felt when she was teased about her weight? If you saw someone being teased like this character was, how could you help him?

The hard thing is that people often do tease one another about their looks or behavior. And while someone may think it is just playfulness it can truly hurt and it can affect a child’s self-image.

Almost everything I read emphasized that our own attitudes about food and body shape impact our kids’ relationship with weight. So while I have been trying to lose some weight over the past few months, I need to be careful how Lexie perceives this. (And the bad thing is I have been focusing on the scale and how much I weigh more than I should.)

Tanning

Lexie has all of sudden shown an interest in tanning. Not using a tanning bed, but she has mentioned laying out to get a tan while we are at the pool. Now I remember doing this too as a teenager. But of course I didn’t realize any of the dangers of tanning. While I think there is nothing wrong with a tan (you will get one just by being active outside), I am not too keen on my 8-year-old focusing on it or laying out to get one.

Whenever we head to the theme park, water park or the pool, we slather on sunscreen (usually SPF 50) and reapply it every 90 minutes to 2 hours. But if it is a short jaunt outside – a quick walk to the park or a brief stop at the playground (which is mostly in the shade) – we don’t apply sunscreen. And she understands that we do use the sunscreen so we don’t get a sunburn. But she doesn’t know anything about excessive sun exposure and repeated sunburns leading to premature aging and of course skin cancer.

So while I would love for Lexie to build her tan while being active outside, I would rather her not purposely lie out to get one especially at such a young age. The issue here is to give her enough information about the dangers without making her overly fearful of any sun exposure. I guess it is the same balancing act that I must follow when discussing her body image and both certainly will be topics we discuss often in the upcoming years.

Explaining cancer and chemo to the kids

cancerTwo weeks ago, my friend revealed that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. I immediately offered to help her out any way she needed. For the purposes of this blog, I will call her Pat since I am not sure she wants me to announce to everyone on the Internet that she has cancer. I know, I know, it isn’t very likely that you could recognize her from this, but it just feels better to give her an alias.

Originally, Pat was supposed to start chemotherapy right away, but it has turned into a hurry up and wait type situation. Now this is a friend whom my kids see several times a week as we walk with her kids (boy/girl twins who are the same age as Jase) to and from school. (We don’t see her daily as she is the bread-winner of the family and on most days, it is her husband walking with us and the kids though Pat joins us two mornings and one afternoon each week.)

Anyway, since the kids do see her several times a week, I felt it necessary to discuss with my kids some of the upcoming changes. I thought the discussion might be as hard as the death one that I had with Lexie back in November, but it proved to be easier than I thought.

I spoke to each kid separately. I didn’t really explain to either of them what cancer is but concentrated on the fact that the doctors would be treating Pat in order to make her better but that the treatment would be rough. We talked about her not feeling well and that the twins might be coming over to our house more often. (We had already had them over while she met with the oncologist.) And we talked about her losing her hair which according to her oncologist should happen within a week of her starting treatment.

The kids seemed fine with what I told them, and I encouraged them to ask me any questions they had – now or as time went on. Of course, I am really unsure what will happen. I have never known anyone who had Chemo. My dad has been diagnosed with cancer twice. He first had prostate cancer where he received radiation for about a year. His appearance never changed, and we don’t see him all that often for them to notice any of the other side effects like being tired.

This summer my dad was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. The kids knew he had surgery since I went and sat with my mom at the hospital. But being kids, they really didn’t understand. All they knew is that their other grandparents came to play with them while I was away. In this instance, the only thing we told them was my dad’s voice would be scratchy and rough sounding from the surgery for a few months. Though they did comment on that when they say him, they never did ask any other questions.

So I guess we will see how things go with Pat. I am sure the questions will come, and we will answer them with straight-forward responses. And I am sure Lexie, who is still obsessed with death, will bring up that subject again too.

Death: One of the many hard discussions I will have with my kids

I don’t know what prompted it, but my four-year-old has been worrying about death lately. It isn’t that anyone we know has died. In fact, my kids have never had to deal with the death of a loved one or even a pet. And for that I am thankful, but I realize that won’t always hold true.

A week ago, Lexie came in from riding her scooter with her brother saying she didn’t want to become a grandma because then she would die. My husband and I quickly pointed out that both of her grandmas were still alive and that becoming a grandma didn’t mean you were going to die.

“Then what will happen when I become a grandma?” she asked.

“You will enjoy playing with your grandkids,” my husband answered.

That answer seemed to be fine with her, but the subject didn’t go away. A few mornings later, Lexie was almost in tears talking about growing old and not wanting to die. We were on the way to preschool, and I didn’t want to discuss this in the car with her, so I said we would discuss it later.

After I dropped her off, I drove home torn with what I would tell her. I want to be truthful about death, but I also don’t want to scare her or cause her to worry about it. I can’t tell her that she or someone she loves will not die. She might never believe anything else I ever say if I told her those things wouldn’t happen and then they do.  I kind of hoped she would forget about the topic but no such luck.

On the way home, she brought up the topic again. I asked her why she was thinking about death, and she said it was from a dream. She went on to say that you die when you get a tummy ache or when you get sick.  I calmly pointed out that Daddy had been sick earlier this month, and he didn’t die. She then asked if sometimes you die after being sick, and I did agree that sometimes that happens but that many times you get sick and then get better.

Having the discussion in the car wasn’t the ideal place to talk about dying, but I think I addressed her questions and reassured her the best that I can. But I am sure this won’t be our last conversation about it. I just hope that I continue to find the right words to alleviate her concerns.