Though it is an increasingly common condition, obesity is not a superficial issue. Carrying extra weight can lead to increased risk for diabetes, heart disease and even cancer. With childhood obesity rates rising, these health risks are affecting children at a much younger age.
“Obesity is one of the biggest health concerns Americans are facing – especially children,” says Elizabeth Victor, Ph.D., clinical psychologist with the Center for Obesity and its Consequences in Health (COACH) program at Children’s Health℠. “All parents want to see their children be healthier, but weight is so stigmatized that it’s challenging for parents to talk about.”
When tackling this complicated topic, make sure the conversation is supportive rather than punishing or critical.
Be gentle with your child – and yourself
Dr. Victor says parents can feel uncomfortable and guilty about their child’s weight. These feelings can make conversations negative instead of encouraging.
“Parents often feel overwhelmed talking to their children about weight. Perhaps some parents have past or present weight struggles,” says Dr. Victor. “It can be helpful to acknowledge your own struggles and openly discuss what changes the parent wants to make.”
It’s also important to talk about your body in positive ways. If kids hear messages about how your family has always been overweight, they may feel as though they can’t do anything to improve their health. If a parent struggles with weight, be open about that and tell your child that you are committed to making changes too.
Learn and recognize how your child feels
Ask children open-ended questions and use reflective statements to learn how they are feeling. For example, a child might say, “Other kids say I’m fat. Do you think I’m fat?”
Instead of replying “yes” or “no,” give your child a way to reflect on his or her feelings. Say, “I hear you are really worried about how other kids see you, but how do you see yourself?”
After children share, thank them and recognize their feelings. Use statements like:
- “I’m sorry you are feeling this way. I am glad you are telling me about it.”
- “I hear that is hard for you. I want to work with you to make it better.”
- “Your weight doesn’t determine your value as a person.”
- “Thank you for sharing these feelings with me.”
Remind children of the positive qualities they have. Is your child funny, hardworking or kind? Tell them how you feel. It will help boost their self-esteem.
Focus on health, not appearance
Dr. Victor says parents should always relate weight to health, not appearance. All bodies look different and even at a healthy weight, your child may not fit society’s view of “skinny.”
Point out ways losing weight improves quality of life, not appearance, by saying:
- “It can be helpful for you to lose weight so you feel good.”
- “Too much weight can put you at risk for diabetes.”
- “Losing weight can make us feel more comfortable.”
Avoid the word “fat”
Calling your child fat or any other names is a form of bullying. These negative interactions are not helpful and can make weight problems worse.
Dr. Victor says parents should stay positive and focus on recognizing what a child does well, using statements such as:
- “I noticed you ate all your vegetables. That was great!”
- “Thanks for inviting me to go on a walk. What a healthy choice!”
- “You’re drinking water. Good idea!”
Make it a family effort
Family support is vital to success, so much so, that Dr. Victor includes parents in all her counseling sessions. “Weight is a family issue,” says Dr. Victor. “Research shows that only when a family makes these changes as a unit does the child successfully lose and maintain weight loss.”
Vanessa Simpson, LMSW, clinical social worker with the COACH program, adds that by participating in healthy activities, you can help your child feel less alone and more supported.
“If children feel like they have their family’s support, that can help in those moments where they feel like they want to give up,” says Simpson.
Simpson encourages you to say things like:
- “We need to make healthy choices together.”
- “Let’s go on a walk together.”
- “Let’s eat more vegetables this week.”
Put small changes first
“If a family or patient is feeling overwhelmed with making healthy lifestyle changes, they are not going to feel like they can succeed and might not start trying to be healthier,” says Simpson. “Start by focusing on just a couple of changes so it is not overwhelming.”
Dr. Victor agrees that making many changes at once is unrealistic. Instead, parents and children should take small steps like:
- Never having soda in the house.
- Walking for 20 minutes as a family after dinner.
- Eating a vegetable with dinner every night.
If your child is struggling emotionally with weight or eating, you should seek out professional help. The support of a team including a clinical psychologist and a social worker can help your child build the coping skills he or she needs to make healthy choices.
As childhood obesity rates rise, health risks are affecting children at a younger age. Talking to children about weight concerns can be complicated. Learn how to help instead of hurt via experts @Childrens.
Find out how the Center for Obesity and its Consequences in Health (COACH) program at Children’s Health can help children manage weight and improve their wellbeing.