Talking to Kids about Eating Healthy

Q: When parents become aware of a possible health problem related to their children’s weight, how can they address the problem without causing self-esteem issues?

A: It’s better to address a weight problem with children directly rather than pretending it doesn’t exist. Overweight kids and teens know they are heavy. They compare themselves with their peers or kids they see in the media and, often times they are teased about their weight. Parents should talk openly with their children and assure them they are loved regardless of weight. It’s a delicate issue, but being honest is important. Even though they may act like they are not listening, they are on high alert when the topic is about them. Don’t forget they often overhear conversations as well, so always be mindful of what you say in ear-shot of your child.

Tips

  • Focus on health, not weight: Compliment your children on lifestyle behaviors like “Great snack choice” or “You really run fast” rather than on the loss of pounds.
  • Be a partner in health, not a police officer: It doesn’t work if a parent hovers and monitors what the child eats and his or her activities. Parents can improve the whole family’s health by not buying junk food, sugary drinks, avoiding fast foods and planning weekend activities for the entire family. Parents need to set firm limits.
  • Treat children equally: Even if one of your kids has issues related to obesity and another doesn’t, make sure one isn’t getting a cookie and the other is getting broccoli. This causes resentment and negativity.
  • Create an open environment for discussion: Weight may sometimes have nothing to do with food. The child could have emotional issues that trigger eating behaviors.
  • Lead by example: Don’t just talk about eating right and exercising. Make lifestyle changes as a family. Turn off TVs and computers. Look for ways to spend fun, active time together.

Things to Avoid

  • Don’t play the blame game: Avoid yelling, bribing, threatening or punishing children about weight, food or physical activity. These issues can breed shame and anger. The worse children feel about their weight, the more likely they are to overeat or develop an eating disorder.
  • Don’t label your child: Be careful…labeling your child as the slow, fast, skinny or fat one can sometimes lead kids “live up to their labels.”
  • Don’t criminalize the cupcake: Food should not be used as a reward. An occasional treat is OK, as long as they are eaten in moderation. Making something forbidden tends to make a child seek it out even more.
  • Don’t criticize your own weight: Kids are always listening and internalizing what their parents say and do. Parents who belittle themselves and their own figures could pass that on to their children.
  • Avoid the word “FAT”: Getting to a healthy weight is not about becoming skinnier or prettier. Emphasize health over appearances.

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