It's a parent's job to translate a child's words and behaviors and then figure out how best to respond. Without the benefit of clear language and emotional regulation, children make basic comprehension of their actions difficult. In this day and age, a child's statement of "I feel fat" is just such a challenge.
Parents tend to interpret children largely based on the prevailing life philosophy. Following the most popular parenting books through successive generations is a great way to learn about the evolution of kids' expected roles in society. Parents, more often than not, will gladly accept any advice offered, so parenting guide books tend to be popular. Raising children is too daunting a task to leave parents with much energy to argue with the supposed experts. As the philosophy seeps into a generation, kids are gradually assimilated into their culture.
The current mode of healing in any day and age strongly influences the approach parents use to comprehend a child's baffling reactions to daily life. Often the most trusted member of the community is the designated healer.
The concept of therapist as healer--an ignominious status passed down from shaman to minister to psychoanalyst and now to therapist--has had a profound effect on how we live our lives today and, in communities focused on youth, how parents treat children.
Therapy, taken as a whole, presents many theories that can be used to understand children. There is a vast therapy literature that explores a child's use of play and transitional objects and another that focuses on the conflicts that arise in each stage of maturation, but the lay person's current takeaway message from a world of therapy is very different.
The current parenting book is now an adult-centered self-help paperback. A quick and easy read with a few throwaway lines you forget within an hour or two. Rather than interpreting a child's behavior as a clue to their current needs, the premise of these books is to wonder what might be going on in their little minds, as if they are just small adults.
Children no longer have the free pass of just being kids. The endless stream of self-help mantras and boiled-down therapy nuggets has led parents to apply adult advice to a growing child. Kids are now mistakenly seen as little grown-ups with mature motivations and emotions and are regularly misunderstood.
The over-analyzing and rationalizing of a child's behavior leads parents to ascribe sophisticated motives to the haphazard flailing of an animal that is all id. The bygone world less preoccupied with a child's inner workings left kids to their own devices to sort through personal development and hoped for the best. Now, watched at every turn, kids have each moment scripted practically from birth.
The end result is little freedom to engage in play and experiential learning and little time for a key part of childhood, self-exploration. At activity after activity, kids perform a task and search an adult's knowing gaze for approval. Kids don't flounder in the feeling of insecurity and confusion; there is no time or reason for that. They have been trained to look to the adults in their lives for signs not only of how they're doing, but of who they ought to be.
Treated as mini-adults and left little space for development of an identity, kids have resorted to adult language--such as "I feel fat"-- to try to express any sense of unhappiness. Because kids are seen as little people, parents and clinicians alike are apt to treat a child's comment about feeling fat at face value. The two possible interpretations undoubtedly magnify and sometimes even create a problem that was never there.
One option is to actually believe the child and put her on a diet. This step, meant, in therapist lingo, to validate the child's worry, only confirms that she is fat and encourages the descent into an eating disorder.
The second is to be the proactive parent and treat this comment as if the child already has an eating disorder. Unbeknownst to the worried adult, children have little ability to distinguish between looking for a problem and having one. Thus, the child will now believe that, magically, one statement itself is enough to constitute an eating disorder.
Just as the eating disorder treatment adage "It's not about the food" explains, this isolated comment is not about feeling fat. One of the biggest challenges with children is that they don't have the ability to express what's going on inside them. It is the privilege of adolescence and young adulthood to learn how to meld our emotional and rational worlds. And the truth is that doing it well is a life's work.
Often, in children, emotions come out in physical ways, like a headache or stomach ache, tantrums or, as in this case, copying the expressions of adults around them. So a parent, spooked by this comment, has to table the initial fear. Any emotional reaction by an adult will spark the child's interest, the opposite of the desired response. Just asking the child what's wrong will get you nowhere. Saying "I feel fat" was all the child knew how to say. This is a situation for the parent to do a bit of sleuthing to understand what's going on.
The first thing to look at is the child's behavior. Kids really at risk will be restricting food, secretly binging or obsessively checking their bodies, even as young as age five or six. If the only red flag is "I feel fat," without any eating disorder behaviors, then this comment is very unlikely to represent the start of an illness.
After dismissing the worst case scenario, however, this isn't the moment to ignore the comment. Any child aware of the adults and media around them knows that feeling fat is a way to express that something is wrong. Without another way to say it, this child is using sophisticated adult shorthand to get someone to understand. This is an opportunity to poke around at school about academics or friendships, to talk to teachers or other parents and suss out what might be going on. That way, the child will see that you know there is a problem, even if feeling fat has nothing to do with it.