Talking to Your Kids about Weight: How to Have the Right Conversation
Dr. Anne Lewis, psychologist at the IU Health Charis Center for Eating Disorders, talks about how to have the right conversation with your child about their weight.
With childhood obesity levels at an all-time high (the CDC reports that the rate has tripled since 1970 with 1 in 5 kids now diagnosed as obese), the weight conversation is an important one for parents to have with their kids. But it can also be a touchy topic. To help, we asked expert Anne Lewis, PhD, psychologist at the Indiana University Health Charis Center for Eating Disorders, for tips.
Starting the conversation
Don’t start the conversation by stating that you’ve noticed that your child has put on or lost weight, but instead ask your child how they feel about their weight and body, says Dr. Lewis. You don’t want them to become defensive or self-conscious about something that is a natural part of growing up. “Weight fluctuates over time and is not necessarily reflective of a child’s physiological needs,” she says. “Many children will put on what may seem like excessive weight right before puberty, only to lose it years later after a sudden growth spurt.” She warns parents about carefully tracking their child’s BMI charts, because puberty and growth spurts aren’t being considered.
Instead, she suggests parents focus the conversation on the symptoms that may promote excessive weight gain or inadequate weight gain. “It can be more helpful to discuss the fact that your child never seems to go outside and play,” says Dr. Lewis. Encourage them to do this and suggest friends and activities to make this possible. Also, if your child is eating a lot of processed foods, you can steer the conversation to a discussion about a variety of healthy food choices and make sure your child is included in the preparation of meals.
What not to do
As a parent, it can be hard to know exactly what to say when having this touchy discussion, but equally important is knowing what not to say. Dr. Lewis advises against doing any of the following.
- Don’t ever call your child fat or talk about their body size in relationship to peers. This can be hurtful and can have long-term effects on their self-esteem.
- Make it solely about their weight. A lot of kids and adults can achieve a “number” which can wind up turning into an eating disorder.
- Don’t put your child on a diet. “Don’t use the word ‘diet’ and don’t encourage calorie counting,” she says.
- Do not tell kids to stop eating certain foods; this only creates mystery around foods and makes them want it more. “This does not help them short term, since it does not help kids identify ways to moderate foods,” she says.
Make it about more than food
Talking about a child’s weight means painting a larger picture, combining nutrition, exercise, and overall health. For example, encourage exercise and physical activity. “Thirty minutes of outside play—basketball with a friend, tag, raking leaves, jumping on a trampoline or taking a walk to a friend’s house are all fun forms of physical activity,” suggests Dr. Lewis. Chores also count: vacuuming, walking up and down the stairs to do laundry, mowing the lawn—all these things keep kids moving.
“Also, kids love sweets, and without healthy boundaries, kids will turn to sweets any chance they get,” she explains. So, explain to them what foods they can eat all the time (fruits and veggies) and what foods they can have in moderation (treats). And of course the best way to encourage healthy behaviors in children is to model it as parents. So, go for that family bike ride after a healthy family dinner.
-- By Judy Koutsky