This is adapted from Meghan Leahy’s recent online chat.

I am close to my 5-year-old niece and see her at least once a week. I’m also fat. Several months ago, she asked me why I have “a big belly.” I had prepared myself for that question, casually said “some people have big bellies and some people have small bellies,” and moved on. Unfortunately, that was not the end of it. Almost every time I see her now, she brings up my belly and wants to laugh about it. Sometimes she points out my belly and laughs and tells me it is big (thanks, I hadn’t noticed!), or she laughs and tells me I have a baby in my belly (and laughingly argues when I correct her), or she throws herself into my stomach and “bounces” off like it is a game. I usually just try not to react, and I have tried to be thick-skinned, but I am embarrassed and have begun dreading seeing her. I have briefly explained twice that some people do not like to talk about their bodies because they are private — thinking this lesson can extend to any physical “difference” that might cause comment — but that has not worked. What can I say to her (and how) that puts an end to this problem without making too big of a deal about it? This has been going on for months and brushing it off is not working.

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A: Meghan Leahy

This has been going for months? Huh.

If you follow my work, you know I really hate the phrase “Nipping it in the bud.” But in this case? It applies. The problem is you have been giving your niece mixed messages about her treatment of you, so you need to get a message and stick to it.

Whether it be that you are fat or your eyes are brown or your hair is curly or your legs are short, we need to help children understand every human is born different and those differences should be seen and appreciated. Not teased and not poked at.

Five-year-olds are known for their noticing of differences; this is an age where you can see a little bit of tribalism among the kids. You will start to see little cliques forming, and this is the human desire to feel safe among what looks like you. You see adults who are still the same way.

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If we allow children to form and stay in these cliques, they can easily become mean and even cruel.

So, take your niece to the library and take out some books about how people look different. From disabilities seen (wheelchairs) and unseen (deafness and brain issues), you can begin a conversation with your niece that promotes empathy and compassion.

I know our culture hates the word shame and runs screaming from it, the ability to feel some shame means you have a working moral compass. I do not want you to shame your niece, but I want you to call a thing a thing. “When you poke me and laugh at me, you are hurting me and it is not okay. I love my body, and I want you to stop. Now.”

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Do not shy away from it, do not insult her, do not become irate. Stay matter-of-fact and repeat as necessary.

Have you spoken to her parents about this? They can also support you, not by shaming her, but by promoting how people are different, and we do not laugh at these differences.

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Finally, she is not trying to be awful. She is not bullying you. But you are not doing her any favors by letting her off the hook here.

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