with author Guest Contributor
talking to kids about weight
Psychotherapist Stacy Kaiser: As parents we all have a number of potentially difficult and stressful conversations ahead of us with our children. There are the discussions about smoking cigarettes, using drugs and alcohol. Not to mention the official dreaded-by-both-sides “birds and bees” talk. But as the obesity rates in the US have risen to crisis proportions, junk food is around every corner, and younger and younger kids are bombarded with images of entertainers in skimpy clothes, having plastic surgery and pitching the latest diet and fitness craze, parents find themselves having to speak to their children about yet another loaded subject: their weight.
Many parents are reluctant to talk with their children about weight and food issues. If their kids’ weight falls into the normal range, they often think it's not necessary. If their child is overweight, parents worry about creating more shame and embarrassment for their child by bringing up the topic, possibly to the point of triggering an eating disorder. Finally, many parents are not comfortable with their own weight related issues and so they avoid the topic altogether.
A recent Sanford Health/Web MD Study showed that 29% of kids would be annoyed if a parent tried to speak to them about weight. 18% would be confused, while another 18% would be embarrassed. Only 20% would be happy their parents brought this topic up. Clearly this is not an easy conversation to have for either side — the same study shows but this is an indisputable fact: Parents who are open and communicative with their children about uncomfortable issues share a stronger bond, and their children are less likely to engage in negative or risky behaviors and they are less likely to grow up with bad habits, compulsive over-eating or eating disorders.
I always say, we are not raising children, we are raising adults. The habits and values we impart to our children early on and as they grow will carry them into adulthood. We need to get them on the right track from the start so that healthy habits and ways of thinking become ingrained early. The battles with weight and food issues are way harder to fight once adolescence and adulthood hit.
Even babies and preschool age children can learn the basics about healthy living -- nutritious food and the need for exercise. So, get clear on your own values, beliefs and attitudes and which lessons you want to teach your children. Be as honest as possible (“Mommy’s not crazy about vegetables either, but we need to eat them,” and “following the rules of good health will help you live longer and feel better”). Keep the focus on reminding your child that you feel strongly about wanting him or her to be as healthy and happy as possible, and that starts with good eating and a healthy lifestyle.
As they grow keep discussions of healthy eating and weight a regular topic of conversation. If your child is old enough to read, research facts together online... for example, about a certain food, or check the statistics for obesity in middle school. Show them websites with food pyramids and health tips so you can meal-plan together. If you're taking a trip to a fast food restaurant, look up the nutrition facts, and make the healthiest choice. Mainly, keep your ears open for any chance to introduce a discussion of body image, weight or food in a natural way, as opposed to sitting down and saying, “We need to talk about your weight.”
Let’s say your children are older and healthy eating has never been a priority. It's not too late to change. As long as they live under your roof (even if it's only part-time) you can still make an impact. Start by owning up to your discomfort and mistakes. Let your child know that you have avoided this conversation or handled the situation ineffectively in the past, but that you are starting fresh and plan to do better this time.
Ask for their input on your new plan, one that includes eating right, exercise, and sufficient sleep for each member of the family. This way the focus is on a healthy body and feeling good as opposed to how much each person weighs, how they look or dieting. Reinforce good behavior, and ask for their support as you also change your lifestyle. Praise your children for making good choices when it comes to every area of health... from exercise to food to sleep to resting while sick.
Finally, if you feel there’s a problem but a discussion of weight with your child causes too much anxiety and distress for either of you, recruit someone else to talk with them; ideally a close friend or relative that your child feels comfortable with. If all else fails, consider bringing in an empathetic therapist. Better that your child have a conversation with someone versus no one.
Stacy Kaiser is a licensed psychotherapist, relationship expert and author of How to Be a Grownup: The Ten Secret Skills Everyone Needs to Know. With a reputation for bringing a unique mix of thoughtful and provocative insight to a wide range of topics, Stacy juggles the demands of a thriving private practice with the daily challenges as a mother of two daughters.