My in-laws won’t stop giving our daughter chocolate

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Mariella Frostrup

The dilemma We were planning to visit my mother-in-law with our two young children over Easter. We asked her to be careful not to give our six-year-old daughter too much chocolate as she is overweight. She was furious. She said that we were controlling and always expect the rest of the family to pander to our desires. Furthermore she argued she’d always made her grandson chocolate cake, hot chocolate and biscuits. Although I am happy for a grandparent to give some treats, I wanted her to hear our concern. Our daughter has been weighed by the health team and labelled “very overweight”. I don’t want her to grow up with weight issues and subsequent dieting obsessions and eating disorders. Should we still visit? If so, on what terms?

Mariella replies Unusually, I find myself taking sides. Obviously you have a problem you need to deal with as regards your daughter’s weight, and it’s understandable you are concerned. However, that’s a health worry to address with a long-term plan, not by micro-managing a weekend sleepover at your husband’s parents.

You’re not alone in fighting childhood obesity, as was made clear a couple of weeks ago when the food giants finally agreed to reduce the sugar content in certain foods by a fifth, drawing attention once again to the significant levels they’ve been merrily stuffing in there to date.

Yours is one of those scenarios that’s so easy to read from the outside, where happily I sit, and incredibly emotive when you’re trapped in the vortex. Your conversation may well have started out as a reasonable airing of your concerns, but it has been mistranslated along the way and now looks far more like an example of you trying to exercise excess control.

If you took a step back from close combat you might see their point of view a bit better. They are certainly not to blame for their grandchild’s weight issues and no doubt find it similarly worrisome, but beyond their remit.

I’m confused as to how a couple of days’ indulgence would lead to the lifetime of dieting you are envisaging

They’re probably right, as I’m sure you’d hate it if your mother-in-law began lecturing you on your daughter’s bad eating habits. Likewise, she won’t feel it’s fair for you to thrust responsibility on them for something that definitely will neither be cured nor exacerbated over a few short days. It’s understandable that these grandparents might be annoyed that a situation you are struggling to manage effectively should be tipped into their laps over Easter.

I’m not sure what’s at the heart of your daughter’s weight problem but making it the focus of everyone’s attention is unlikely to improve matters. It’s certainly not the occasional foray to her grandparents that is causing the problem, so a discussion about how you can all work together to help her, rather than a diktat on what she can and can’t be given over two days, seems a more sensible approach.

Like any parent, you don’t want your kid vomiting chocolate after an Easter-egg orgy, but making a huge deal of it will surely just make your daughter feel self-conscious. I’m as concerned as the next parent about the abundance of sweets in kids’ lives, and even more so about the products dressed up as healthy that are stuffed with sugar. One of the greatest crimes against our offspring is that they’re growing up in an age when the interests of a few global conglomerates have more influence over government than the next generation’s health issues, but that’s another matter.

Obesity is only occasionally the product of plain greed; generally, it is the outward sign of inner issues. I presume you are seeking professional advice (Mend on 0800 2300 263; or Hoop on 0303 300 0314) in your mission to improve your child’s diet and lifestyle as it’s a very tricky area to negotiate and certainly not as straightforward as banishing sweets.

I’ll admit that grandparents may not always be the most rational of characters – maturing on some days can seem to involve nothing less than a steady and resolute digging in of heels – but they are a really important relationship in our children’s lives. In tandem, I suspect, with your in-laws, I am very sympathetic to your concerns about your child’s weight issues, but confused as to how a couple of days’ indulgence would lead to the lifetime of dieting you are envisaging.

My guess is that you are feeling bad about your child’s diagnosis and it’s making you behave irrationally with those in your immediate orbit. I’d get busy finding out how best to tackle the problem you have, forge ahead with your visit and try to convince close family to work with you on a long-term plan to solve whatever is at the root of your daughter’s obesity. A less confrontational approach will pay dividends by encouraging them to fall in on your side, not feel like they are under attack. Your motives, I’m sure, are good, but your execution leaves quite a bit to be desired.

If you have a dilemma, send a brief email to mariella.frostrup@observer.co.uk. Follow her on Twitter @mariellaf1