My nine-year old son is constantly snacking. He says it's because he's bored. The only activity he will do is play video games. He has gained a ton of weight. I've tried everything to get him to exercise and stop eating all the time but it isn't working. What should I do to get him healthy?
Dear Healthy Mom,
Consider for a moment what your son's day to day life would look like two hundred years ago. Imagine a world without televisions, computers or cell phones. Pretend you've just walked into a village in New England, or a tribe on the plains, and picture your nine-year old in the midst of this scenario. What is he doing? Sitting on a rock, watching the rest of the children as they run and play or gather food? Not likely. Chances are, he's running, climbing, lifting and moving. This is what children are meant to do, and have been doing for thousands of years. That is, up until very, very recently. Childhood obesity is growing at an alarming rate in this country, for the very reasons you describe in your question.
Your son needs to be active. Rather than trying to control his food intake -- which can contribute to eating disorders -- make the following lifestyle changes in your household.
Clear out the junk. If you have high calorie junk food in the house, he's going to want it. Get rid of processed, sugary, high fat snacks and replace them with foods that resemble their original form. If he complains -- and chances are, he will -- acknowledge that he's upset without lecturing him: “I know those cookies were your favorite, and I understand that you're mad that Mom's not buying them anymore. It's hard to look forward to eating something, only to find out that we don't have it anymore.” Say this without shaming him by saying you had no choice since he's eating all the time. The less you emphasize your concerns about his weight, the better.
Announce your plan to help everyone in the family get fit and healthy. Make sure your son has at least one physical activity that he does each week, whether it's a team sport like soccer or basketball, or something different such as karate or even bike-riding. Then, let him know what you're going to be do for your health, whether it's yoga or tennis. Make sure you play outdoors with your son -- badminton, biking or hiking are all activities he can do with you or his friends.
Take a stand about screen time. If your son has unlimited access to video games or television, he's likely to choose that as his after school or weekend activity. Don't be afraid to set limits. Some families only allow video games for an hour or two on weekends. Others offer an hour on school days, after homework is finished. Unless you create some guidelines for your son, he's going to gravitate toward sedentary ways of distracting himself when he has nothing to do. Again, acknowledge it if he's upset, but stay strong. “I know you're mad. I know this is the 'only' thing you like to do. I know you feel bored unless you get to play video games; I hear you. You get to be mad. I love you and want what's best for you.” Don't expect him to understand your reasons for making these changes. When he's upset or angry -- and he will be -- he can't process your logic anyway. Limiting his video games is a big “loss” for your son. He'll need your help, not your lectures, to adjust.
Eating out of boredom is a habit that, if left unchecked, could follow your son into his adulthood. Set in motion more physical activities for him to do on his own and with you. He may be angry now, but he'll thank you later.
Yours in parenting support,
Parent Coach, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.