Weight can be a sensitive topic to talk about at any age, but it shouldn’t be ignored if you’re concerned about your child’s health. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued updated recommendations last year on how families can help children maintain a healthy weight by setting a positive example. As Sandra Hassink, MD, coauthor of the report puts it, “It’s never too early for a family to make changes that will help a child keep or achieve a healthy weight.”
Even though parents play a key role in their kids’ relationship with food, they’re sometimes uncomfortable dealing with it. “A lot of parents have no idea what to do if their child is overweight,” says Leslie Connor, PhD, a Wilmington, Delaware-based psychologist who specializes in the assessment and treatment of eating disorders, as well as chronic weight problems. “They want them to be a healthy eater, but don’t know how to talk about it.”
Research shows that parents often have difficulty acknowledging a child’s weight problem. One study, published in August 2015 in Childhood Obesity, found that the vast majority of parents of preschool-age obese children perceived their kids to be “about the right weight.”
Even when parents engage children in a well-meaning dialogue, they need to be mindful of how they are speaking about food-related issues.
A study published this month in the journal Eating and Weight Disorders suggests that a parent’s comments about a child’s weight, as opposed to eating habits, are related to weight and body dissatisfaction as an adult.
Similarly, an August 2013 study in JAMA Pediatrics found that focusing the discussion on weight and size may encourage unhealthy habits like binge eating or anorexia. Instead, parents should put the emphasis on health.
“It is important for parents to understand what types of conversations may be helpful or harmful in regard to disordered eating behaviors, and how to have these conversations with their adolescents,” says study author Jerica Berge, PhD, MPH, a researcher with the University of Minnesota Department of Family Medicine and Community Health in Minneapolis.
Dr. Connor recommends trying to relate to children rather than reprimanding them. One good technique is to talk about weight struggles you may have had, and how you dealt with them.
“Rather than dictating or preaching, it helps to see the struggles through their eyes,” she says. “The more you share and self-disclose about yourself, the more likely they’ll think about their own habits.”
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics offers the following tips for discussing weight with your kids:
- Make it easy for kids to eat smart and move often. Serve regular, balanced meals, and find ways to spend fun, active time together.
- Never punish, threaten, or bribe children about eating habits and physical activity.
- Make sure parents and other relatives are on the same page.
- Ask your child’s doctor for ideas on making positive changes.
- Look for local programs and professionals specializing in youth, like a registered dietitian with a specialty in pediatric weight management.
- Compliment your child on positive lifestyle behaviors rather than on weight loss.
The AAP report stresses that pediatricians need to be “an integral part of the obesity prevention effort.” The report says that pediatricians should “promote a diet free of sugar-sweetened beverages, of fewer foods with high caloric density, and of increased intake of fruits and vegetables … [and] promote a lifestyle with reduced sedentary behavior and with 60 minutes of daily moderate to vigorous physical activity.”
Posted in: Health Matters With Dr. Sanjay Gupta
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