In a country where 17 percent of all children are obese and another 17 percent are overweight, childhood obesity should be a topic of conversation for families. But according to a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics, how we talk about childhood obesity could be just as important as whether we’re talking about it. According to the study, 36 percent of parents would react to words like “fat” and “obesity” by putting their child on a strict diet and another 35 percent would go off in search of a different doctor — and neither of these reactions are best for a child’s health.
“Words do matter when it comes to talking about childhood obesity,” says Mackenzie Varkula, DO, a psychiatrist at the Cleveland Clinic. “Words that cause parents or children to feel shame or fear are always counterproductive.”
You need to keep words such as ‘fat’ and ‘obese’ out of the conversation when weight loss is the topic. “Always talk about weight in positive terms and stress the benefits of healthy weight for kids,” suggests Kristin Kirkpatrick, RD, a nutrition specialist at the Cleveland Clinic. “The key is to build a foundation for healthy choices, not to jump into a weight-loss program.” If you need to talk to a child in your family about their weight, here’s how to make it happen.
Start the Kids Health Discussion Early
At toddler age, “it is 100 percent a family learning discussion,” Kirkpatrick says. “Little children do not eat separately from the rest of the family.” Here are ideas to handle the situation:
- “If both parents are overweight, there is an 85 percent chance that their children will be overweight,” Kirkpatrick says. That means parents need to get educated about nutrition and start setting a good example for their kids’ health.
- “With young children you need to avoid ‘don’t’ phrases and use lots of ‘do’ phrases,” advises Varkula. “Always avoid nagging children about what not to eat and concentrate on telling them what is good to eat.” It’s never too early to start building the foundation for healthy choices.
- Try using stars or other stickers to praise healthy food choices and fitness activities.
- Don’t be a food Nazi. “You don’t need to cancel Halloween,” Kirkpatrick says. “Kids can make healthy choices and still enjoy an occasional treat.”
- “Always avoid teaching young children to associate food with stress or stress relief,” she adds. This means that you should never use food as a reward or as a punishment.
School-Age Kids Need to Get Involved
“Older kids really learn and benefit from taking a more active role in healthy food choices,” Kirkpatrick notes. “They should be taken along on shopping trips, taught to read labels, and get involved in cooking and serving family meals.” Here are more tips:
- Watch out for bullying or stigmatizing. “School-age kids can be very blunt and direct,” Varkula says. “They may exclude or pick on a child who is overweight. Addressing these issues with the school usually helps.”
- “Use childhood heroes as positive role models and examples,” Kirkpatrick suggests. A young boy who admires sports stars might be encouraged to eat well so he can grow taller and be like his favorite basketball player, for example.
- “Always try to replace negative self-talk with positive reinforcement,” Varkula says. Children who are called fat at school may start to tell themselves, “I am fat.” They need to be given positive feedback. Go out of your way to replace negative words like “fat” with words such as “smart,” “cool,” “kind,” and “funny.”
How to Talk With Teens About Weight
“Children who used the negative self-talk like ‘I am fat’ may have internalized that talk to ‘I am bad’ as teens,” warns Varkula. Teens who still have problems with weight loss or obesity may be less likely to respond to parents and may be at higher risk for eating disorders. Consider these strategies:
- “Teens may benefit from talking about weight loss issues with peers more than with parents,” says Kirkpatrick. Support groups for teens offer an opportunity for weight-loss success.
- “Teens can still benefit from positive reinforcement to build self-esteem,” says Varkula. Parents should encourage activities like sports, music, or any activity a teen is good at and enjoys.
- Watch out for statements like “Everything will be OK as long as I am thin.” Both boys and girls can develop eating disorders. Parents need to be on the alert for behaviors like sudden weight loss, isolation, avoiding family meals, food hoarding, or any other sudden changes in a teen’s behavior. If parents suspect an eating disorder, they should seek professional help.
A final tip on childhood obesity, no matter the age, is to include fitness as part of a weight-loss program. “Fitness is another lifestyle choice that lasts a lifetime,” notes Kirkpatrick. “Plan family activities that include physical activity, and encourage your child to stay active.”