The Danger of Talking to Children About Weight

A new study sheds light about the potential for harm

Posted Aug 16, 2016

As parents, we want the best for our children. We want our children to live lives better than our own; to be happy, successful, and—perhaps most of all—healthy. For many, that means we want our children to be thin. And if they can’t be thin, we most certainly don’t want them to be fat. On the evening news, we hear about the dangers of childhood obesity. We see images of miserable looking children with fat rolls billowing over their too tight pants, shirts bursting up above the gut, and we can only imagine the sadness and shame on their faces hidden from view. Medical experts warn of the dire consequences of being “overweight:” diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, and just about any other ailment you can imagine.

We are told that this generation of children will be the first to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents (a statement that induces fear but seems to ignore the fact that life expectancy is actually at an all-time high). At school, children are graded not only on their academic performance, but also according to their Body Mass Index (BMI). A child’s fatness is seen as a reflection of parenting skills and parents of fat children are deemed bad parents. These parents are even at risk of having their children removed from their care and being arrested for neglect. It’s no wonder so many parents worry about their children’s weight!

Unfortunately, many well-intentioned parents inadvertently cause harm to their children when they try to intervene around issues of body weight, size, and eating.  A research study published in the June 2016 issue of Eating and Weight Disorders (Wansink, Latimer, and Pope; 2016) highlights some of the problems that may arise when a parent comments about his or her daughter’s weight.

The researchers asked 501 adult women between the ages of 20-35 to recall comments that their parents had made about their weight or eating habits when they were growing up. They found that women who recalled their parents making weight-related comments were more dissatisfied with their bodies (regardless of their current BMI) and were more prone to higher BMI. In fact, the more that parents commented about weight, the more dissatisfied the adult daughter felt about her body and the more that she weighed as an adult.

One limitation of this study is that “correlation does not equal causation” and it is unclear if the parents’ comments led to children gaining more weight and having higher adult BMIs or whether these participants also weighed more during childhood and their higher weight was the impetus for the parental comments on weight and eating behaviors (this would not have effected the results about body dissatisfaction). Despite this limitation, this study highlights the potential negative impact of parental comments about weight and eating in an adult woman’s BMI and body satisfaction.

So, how do you talk to your child about weight? My opinion is: you don’t. Weight is not the most important predictor of health—in fact BMI is a pretty lousy indicator of health—and factors like nutrition, physical activity, and stress play a more significant role.

So instead of talking about weight, model healthy eating habits, physical activity, and positive body image that can be achieved at any weight. Encourage your children to eat in ways that are attuned with their internal signals of hunger and fullness, to chose foods that they enjoy and make their body feel good, involve your children in the food preparation process to get them excited about meals, and find fun types of physical activity that your child enjoys.

If your child is struggling with body image dissatisfaction, explore this with them while helping them shift their perspective to be more compassionate and accepting of their body—and seek professional help when necessary. Most importantly: never make your child feel as though his or her self-worth is dependent on the numbers on the scale. 

Reference:  Wansink B, Latimer L, & Pope L (2016). “Don’t Eat So Much:” How Parent Comments Relate to Female Weight Satisfaction. Eating and Weight Disorders, Online Published June 6, 2016.