Talking To Your Child About Their Weight

Talking to your child who has a weight problem is not easy.

Posted Nov 19, 2014

The focus on obesity in children and teens has really increased given that about one-third of youth are overweight or obese .   While there is a lot of concern about this problem, there are many reasons why discussing it or using the schools to address it is fraught with peril.  Saying the wrong thing about a child’s weight can stay with them for life and may lead to excessive dieting and extreme methods of weight loss, linked to a higher risk for eating disorders.  Embarrassing a child in school by weighing them can also be traumatic.  On the other hand, children who are overweight or obese endure bullying, victimization and stigmatization by peers and even by parents or siblings, which can increase shame and leave the child very vulnerable.   Parents can learn more about how to deal with bullying by the Yale Rudd Center.   So what is the best approach?

Recent campaigns targeting childhood obesity have tried a “tough love” approach that has backfired spectacularly.  We know from research that whenever that shaming, blaming and stigmatizing youths for their weight makes them more likely to binge eat, avoid exercise, drop-out of weight-loss programs and increase their calorie intake.

Here are some suggestions that may help you have that difficult conversation :

  1. Avoid blame – Sometimes parent seek to help children with their weight problem by saying things like “If you want to lose weight, you should stop eating_________”) or “You can’t get your weight under control if you keep watching TV instead of exercising.”  While these statements may be well meaning, they put the blame on the child or adolescent.  Instead, model in your home the behaviors you want your child to develop.  Offer non-diet, healthy foods for meals and don’t deprive them of treats that would be a part of a normal eating plan.  Instead of telling him or her to exercise, try finding activities that the whole family can engage in together such as hiking or swimming or biking.  Allow your teenager to choose activities they are drawn to even if it seems “weird” or not athletic enough to you.  I once had a teen client who wanted to learn swing dancing and because it was her idea, she stuck to it.
  2. Think about the genetic blueprint – As parents, you may not have a weight problem and maybe all your children but one is the same.  This may lead you to think that the overweight child is doing something different than the rest of the family to make him or her overweight.  Instead, it may be more that this child has a different genetic makeup and is a genetic throwback to a grandparent or aunt or uncle in the family who is overweight.  Given that obesity is about 50-70% genetic, it’s important to help your overweight child be healthy rather than thin.  If the genetic risk is there, he or she may always be a different body size or shape than other members of the family and you, as parents need to know you can’t make him or her be thin if genetics are underlying the weight difference.  But you can make him or her learn to be healthy.
  3. Don’t focus on numbers – Even if your child is living in a bigger body, they can increase their health overall by being more active and improving their eating habits.  Rather than focusing on the number on the scale, try to set goals as a family that encourage the types of behaviors that make us healthy.  For example, a conversation opener could be:  "What matters is not how much you weigh, but how healthy your body is. What kinds of things do you think we can work on as a family for all of us to be healthier?"
  4. Empower and support – By providing empathy to a child or teen struggling with weight (let them tell you what their concerns are rather than assuming you know how they feel) you can empower them to take more responsibility for their health.  Sometimes a teen may be concerned about other issues more than they are concerned about being overweight.  Also, don’t make your concerns about their weight be the main focus of your relationship with them.  Complement and give positive feedback to your child or teen on other things they are doing well – school work, their music abilities, their kindness towards other, etc.

 Even though obesity in children and teenagers can have an impact on their long-term health – it’s not the only thing.  More important is helping your child grow into a confident, strong and competent adult with good self-esteem – no matter their size is.  Problems with weight are based first in genetics and then in lifestyle but more essentially, they are exacerbated by low self-esteem, shame and guilt.  Once they are caught in this negative cycle of feeling they have to lose weight to be accepted, loved or valued, they have a difficult time getting out of it and will use extreme methods to lose weight.  And, as studies show, dieting only leads to more weight gain.  If a child is loved, accepted and valued, they are much more likely to take care of their bodies.  The goal overall should not be lowering the number on the scale but being the best and healthiest they can be in the body they have.