The recent New York Times article “Parents Should Avoid Comments on a Child’s Weight” (http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/06/16/parents-should-avoid-comments-on-a-childs-weight/?_r=1) is not broadcasting anything new about the way in which we communicate with our children. Practitioners working with children are keenly aware that talking with children about their “weight” is off limits and can most definitely be counterproductive and destructive.
A family based approach is imperative. Within all families, there needs to be open communication about health and wellness despite whether a child is overweight or not. The reality is if a child struggles with being overweight, they know it. They may be being teased at school or by their siblings at home, and/or they are observing enough images on the internet, television and in magazines about how they are “ideally” supposed to look.
When parents choose not to say something, they are making a deliberate choice to ignore the obvious. The silence can result in a child feeling isolated and alone with their struggles and frustrations. They may therefore be left with their own misconceptions and a set of misjudgments about the way their parents and others perceive them. This can negatively affect their self-confidence and evoke shame and self-loathing which can have long-term negative consequences.
More of the issue is the way in which it is discussed. Studies show that parents may demonstrate weight bias toward their children.[i] Parents are often left feeling stigmatized or blamed for their child being overweight. Judgments may be made that they are bad parents, are neglecting their children because they aren’t teaching them differently, and parents may personally feel responsibility or blame because they passed down their genes to them. These factors can directly impact how parents communicate with and act toward their children regarding their weight. Without realizing it or intending to, parents can be disparaging, discouraging and/or resentful for their own weight biases.
Parents often don’t know how to speak to their children about their overeating. It might have been taboo to speak about in their own family of origin, they may not be sure how to talk about it and/or they feel incompetent to talk about the topic because they have their own set of weight and health challenges.
There still needs to be a commitment and willingness to talk about overeating and health in general. Just like it’s critical to talk about substance use, safe sex practices, and Internet safety, it’s equally important to speak about overeating and health. It’s not a challenge that a child will just outgrow. If it is neglected to be spoken about, there’s greater risk that it won’t be worked on which can lead to detrimental long-term health consequences for a child.
No topic should be off limits. There should be an expectation that any topic can be raised, even the ones that parents rather not talk about. It’s the exact opposite, you don’t “wait for your child to bring it up” as Dr. Neumark-Sztainer suggests. If a child doesn’t bring it up, it is a parent’s responsibility to raise the issue with their child, particularly if a parent senses that overeating or health is troubling or impacting their child negatively.
For my book, Free Your Child from Overeating, the majority of parents I interviewed said that they were concerned that if they spoke with their children about their children’s challenges with their eating and exercise behaviors, they were going to say or do the wrong thing and hurt them, put the thoughts in their mind, or create an eating disorder for their children.
“Attention needs to be paid on how to speak about it and not whether or not parents speak about it.”
If parents take the time to open up dialogue in a caring and nurturing way, it will give them the ability to provide their children with knowledge, clarification, comfort, and reassurance. Parents are not expected to know how to effectively communicate, but they can most definitely learn effective communication skills. I dedicated an entire chapter on communication in my book because of its critical importance in facilitating lifelong health. While it is possible to bring this up at any age, it is much easier to tackle health issues when a child is younger and more open and flexible to making changes.
Attention needs to be paid on how to speak about it and not whether or not parents speak about it.[ii] Using the word “weight” is never effective with children. This is old news. We know parents shouldn’t tease their child about their weight or body, shouldn’t badger, nag or preach to their child about their weight and eating habits. They shouldn’t discuss diets or reward or bribe their child to eat differently. They also shouldn’t comment on weight loss or weight gain. Finally, they shouldn’t weigh their child or reject them for any changes in their body weight.
They should encourage their expression of thoughts and feelings regarding health, be aware of how they are encouraging or discouraging their child, use empowering terminology when they discuss their child’s health (e.g., use words such as “healthy”, “flexible”, “agile”, “fit”, “strong”, and “active”), hear their child out fully and avoid offering advice or solutions prematurely.
Parents should always model the behavior they are asking of their child and offer to collaborate using a family-based approach to health at home. The more support a child receives, the greater the chance that they will be open to talking about this topic, ask for help when they need it, and put effort into making healthful changes.
[i] Schwartz, M.B., and Puhl, R. (2003). “Childhood Obesity: A Societal Problem to Solve.” Obesity Reviews, 4(1), 57–71.
[ii] Berge, J.M., MacLehose, R., Loth, K.A., et al. (2013). “Parent Conversations About Healthful Eating and Weight.” JAMA Pediatrics, 167(8), 746–53.