How do I talk to my child about Demi Lovato's emotional issues?

Michael Rich, MD, MPH

Michael Rich, MD, MPH, is Children’s Hospital Boston’s media expert and director of Children’s Center on Media and Child Health. Take a look at his blog archive or follow him on Twitter @CMCH_Boston.

Last week he talked about the subtleties of racial humor and if children picked up on them, or if they simply reinforced negative stereotypes. This week he advises a father on how to talk to his daughter about the recent emotional breakdown of her favorite pop star.

Q: My 6-year-old adores singer/actress Demi Lovato: She watches her Disney Channel show, “Sonny with a Chance” (with supervision), listens to her albums, and went to see Demi as her first concert this summer. But now the media are reporting that Demi just checked into rehab for “physical and emotional issues” that may involve an eating disorder and cutting issues. My daughter shares a playground and bus ride with older kids who are bound to be talking about this. There’s almost no way we can keep her away from the story, so how do I even begin explaining concepts like rehab, eating disorders and cutting to a 6-year-old?

Star-Struck-Down Dad in Boston, MA

A: Dear Dad,

The most important conversation you can have with your daughter about this issue is one that separates this pop star’s image from who she really is as a young girl. That may require a discussion of how everything we see on TV or hear in music is created: It’s not reality, in the way that you and your child live your everyday lives. Brain development research shows us that children under the age of 7 or 8 have a hard time distinguishing television fantasy from reality, so help your daughter understand that there is a real girl behind the character Demi plays on TV and in concert, and that that girl is under considerable pressure to make lots of people around her happy.

You may want to explain that people treat celebrities differently than they would if they weren’t famous, and that even though the attention feels good at first, it can be very isolating. Imagine not being able to walk down the street or even go to the beach without being swarmed by people you don’t know! Even with lots of people paying attention to them, celebrities often feel very alone and very sad, because that attention is to their image rather than who they really are. And in trying to manage painful feelings, people sometimes do unhealthy things to manage that pain.

You know your daughter best, so you can judge how many details she can handle about how Demi has hurt herself, whether it be cutting or substance use. But research has shown that some girls are already talking about their weight and dieting at age 5. So out of this tragic situation for a beloved idol may come a great teachable moment for your daughter: This is an opportunity to find out whether “fat talk” is already happening among the girls on the playground and the bus. You can explain that to your child that her body should be fed and exercised to be healthy, but that “fat talk” comes out of wanting to be what other people expect rather than who you are—that dieting is not always about being healthy, but about trying to manipulate our bodies to satisfy other people. This is exactly what got Demi into trouble, and what she would never want to happen to her fans.

As your child gets older, you’ll likely have to have similar conversations when other role models make public mistakes. (Read our advice on the topic here.) Keep in mind that research reveals a correlation between teenagers who strongly idolize celebrities and negative self-esteem, though mild celebrity interest doesn’t seem to have the same effects. Remember, the entertainment and advertising industries create and amplify celebrity worship to sell that fictional persona for big profits. In turning human beings into products, media create illusions about stars that are difficult for them to maintain.  Ironically, as stars grow more powerful, they feel less in control. As they grow more loved, they feel more alone. And as the human being behind their character suffers, they can act in unhealthy and unsafe ways in their desperate attempts to regain control of their lives and make themselves feel better.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,

The Mediatrician®