The sight of that chubby kid always draws the comment “how cute!” but the same kid ends up facing unpleasant situations as she grows up.
My son was that “cute kid” and his classmates loved to pinch his cheeks. He’d be good-natured about it. But he had an unexpected growth spurt along with an accident that broke his shoulder blade when he was 6 years old, and the two-month recovery added on some extra weight. He wasn’t lazy. In fact, quite the opposite. Loved to run around the school ground, take the stairs to the third floor, and always ready to run an errand. Yet, he never shed those extra pounds.
Then people started talking, and his peers called him names. I think until he got to middle school, he didn’t care. Around the sixth grade, even the teachers were occasionally mean. It almost seemed like bad luck that he was the tallest in the class and quite healthy-looking.
Thanks to the teasing, he refused to take part in sports, although he was happy enough playing football even if he wasn’t good at it. He preferred chess. And he was attending Karate class.
He ate healthy and was as active as any kid. You wouldn’t believe how much he could walk. When we went to the doc for the usual vaccinations, he told us there was nothing to be worried about. Nevertheless, we were concerned—mostly about his self-esteem being hurt.
Maintaining a healthy weight is the foundation for long-term health for all ages, but especially for children. If you think your child is overweight, you have a right to be concerned simply because it opens the door to the risk of lifestyle diseases such as as diabetes and heart disease. While most children shed their “baby fat” by the time they’re in middle school, some do not because of various factors. Today, child obesity is on the rise and the consequences are frightening.
And of course, weight is a sensitive topic with anyone and tackling it with a child is a real challenge. It can be very tempting to be in denial but the consequences are too serious to avoid the topic.
How to talk to your child about being overweight without hurting her feelings and self-esteem and without triggering an eating disorder?
As a first step, some crucial things to remember before talking to a child about losing weight are:
- Your child cannot do it without your support. Overweight children must be lovingly coached to eat healthy.
- Overweight kids almost always face teasing from their peers. If you don’t talk to them, they may get the wrong message that talking about being overweight is taboo. Worse still is the assumption that it is okay to be overweight.
- Young children do feel bad about being overweight and may try something bizarre to lose weight. This can lead to eating disorders. It is better to discuss it with them openly and assure them your support.
Here are some pointers for preparing the ground to talk to your child about being overweight
- Check to see if they are actually overweight. Seek your doctor’s help. This may involve weighing them regularly, usually once a week to monitor their weight. Fast track weight loss is not recommended for children except in special cases under the doctor’s supervision.
- If your child is 7 years or less, think about what you expect them to do about it, as their food and activity is in your control. At this stage, you can manage your child’s weight by ensuring that they eat a balanced meal and get plenty of chances to be active. The best way to approach your child is to talk to them about healthy habits.
- Children in the 7 to 11 age group have the ability to make choices and the best way to help them manage their weight is showing by example. Explain the benefits of why they must eat healthy.
- Children 12 years and above already have their own views about body image, nutrition, and health. They have a reasonable control over what they eat and how they spend their time. This can be leveraged by involving them in coming up with imaginative ways to manage their weight.
How to introduce the subject of weight loss to your child
Now, just sitting your child down and discussing the issue won’t really help. A better way is to pick opportunities to introduce the subject of weight.
For example, ask your child how she feels when:
- Well-meaning friends or family comment on how big she is
- You have to buy clothes intended for an older child or adult
- She is teased at school about her size
Ask her: do these situations upset her? Would she like to do something about it?
As parents, obviously we are full of good intentions but it can be tough to handle an overweight child without getting frustrated. Like every other parenting situation, here are some dos and don’ts to follow when you do talk to your child about managing extra weight:
- Don’t tell your child she’s lazy or greedy. Instead, tell her you understand that it is really hard to make healthy choices sometimes.
- Don’t ever trigger guilt about eating habits. Instead, praise her when she eats healthy to encourage her.
- Never tell her she’s not helping herself. Instead, ask her how you can help her to make healthy choices.
- Don’t let fear be the motivator to lose weight. Instead, explain why healthy weight matters.
- Don’t whine about how tough or boring your own weight loss plan is, if you happen to be on one. Instead, set a good example because children see, children do.
- Do appreciate the good things about your child’s appearance. Never stop reminding her how much you love her.
- Don’t blame your child for being overweight. Nagging will only make it tougher.
- Do explain that it is harder for some people to deal with being overweight than others. Always focus on the positive.
- Don’t use shaming language or harass the child. Don’t shout at her.
- Do look for opportunities to involve her in making healthy choices. Take her shopping and teach her to choose healthy foods. Walk/bike together, take the stairs together.
- Do encourage her to go outdoors and play.
It is crucial for parents to understand how to approach the topic with their children and know that nutrition is more important than those numbers on the weighing scale.
We focused on modelling good behaviour that our son could follow, and made nutrition, healthy eating and exercise first priority. The losing weight was secondary.
Our strategy was love and logic and we also made some general rules for the whole family.
- We avoided snacking on empty calories like chips and cookies and biscuits and switched to healthy options like fresh fruit, salads and healthy homemade dessert—our folks have a sweet tooth, you see!
- We made sure our three meals a day was filling and healthy—which meant a balance of protein, fiber, carbs and fats. I am glad to say that even today, my son is not much of a snacker in between meals.
- We didn’t encourage eating while watching TV except when we planned it. Ask me about losing track over that snack while watching a movie!
- We made a “no soda” rule. I am proud to say none of us are into fizzy drinks. In fact, I was the only culprit but since being diagnosed as a diabetic, I completely stopped. For kids, sodas and juices can fill their tummies and keep them from eating a healthy meal.
- Since sitting is the new smoking, we avoid sitting for too long, especially while watching TV or using the computer. In fact, thanks to the frequent commercials we end up getting up and doing something. For kids, not only is sitting for long periods unhealthy—but those commercials tempting them with high calorie junk food? Ugh!
- We walked together every day for almost an hour and a half—one hour of brisk walking and half an hour of strolling together, catching up on our day.
As I said before, nagging, criticizing or ridiculing a child about extra weight will only make her resentful and rebel. The last thing you want her to do is sneak out and enjoy those very “goodies” you are trying to avoid. The best way to tackle the problem is to lead by example and steer her lovingly towards healthy habits—and a healthy future.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.