Care and Feeding

My Teen Had a Panic Attack Over Gaining Two Pounds

I’m getting pretty worried.

A person stepping one foot onto a scale.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Maya23K/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 15-year-old daughter, “Cassie,” who is obsessing over her appearance, especially her weight, even though she is healthy and doesn’t look even a little bit overweight. But she recently got big news that’s really set her back.

She was recently diagnosed with a medical condition in her leg that will keep her from exercising, possibly for years until she can have corrective surgery.

This wasn’t a total shock, but seeing the facts on paper has been pretty crazy for our whole family, especially Cassie. She was a competitive gymnast and swimmer before the diagnosis, which kept her in good physical condition, but she’s worried that because she can’t participate in these activities anymore, she’ll gain weight and lose her hard-earned muscle. It’s her worst nightmare.

I’ve reminded Cassie that the super skinny bodies she sees on magazine covers are not models that she has to copy. I firmly believe that she is beautiful and still will be even if she gains weight, and I’ve told her so. When she asks (frequently) if I have any tips on how to maintain her current weight or muscle tone, I usually say something along the lines of eating healthy, staying as active as possible considering her diagnosis, and not stressing, but this always reminds her of what she used to look like and sometimes leads to even more insecurity. At this point, she hasn’t shown any signs of eating disorders (she’s eating three regular-sized, healthy meals a day), but she gained two pounds over spring break and had a panic attack. She doesn’t feel comfortable in her clothes, worries about boys not liking her because of her appearance, and constantly wishes she could go back to exercising again.

As her mother, I’m getting pretty worried. I know that she’s a teenager and that teenage girls are often insecure about their weight, and I’m supporting her the best way I know how. However, I can also see her side of the issue. This is an unusual situation where her fears aren’t totally unjustified. She will probably gain weight, she will definitely lose some of her muscle, and she won’t be able to exercise like she used to. How can I help her to handle this realistically while still feeling confident about herself?

— Time for a New Body Image

Dear Time, 

It sounds like you are saying and doing all the right things, but no matter how we try to be body-positive at home, the world is serving our children very different messages about what is and isn’t beautiful. Considering that a two-pound weight gain (the sort of fluctuation that can happen after a few large meals and some water!) was enough to send her into a panic attack, I would consider taking her to speak to a therapist who specializes in teens with eating disorders. That level of anxiety over such a small gain, combined with the fact that she’s constantly agonizing over her size and will inevitably see further change in her body because of her medical condition is enough to want to get her some support before things escalate. Don’t worry that this isn’t big enough to escalate to a professional; this is a devastating set of circumstances for any competitive athlete, and certainly for a teenage girl who is subject to so much harmful information about beauty and body. Please don’t wait.

Now is also an excellent time for your daughter to explore new activities, things she may not have been able to do because of her previous schedule that don’t revolve around physicality. Also, if she’s up for it, it may be nice for her to keep in touch with her coaches and some of the other people she bonded with through sports. Sending you both lots of love.

— Jamilah

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I don’t think that anymore. My kids are so much closer to my wife, and they treat me like a pleasant stranger. We don’t have deep talks, they don’t share what’s going on in their lives, and I feel like I screwed everything up.