No one likes to talk about weight. And bringing up the sensitive topic can be just as difficult with kids as it is with adults.
But that doesn’t mean parents should ignore the issue: Despite the focus in recent years on childhood obesity, about one-third of kids are still overweight or obese. And the rate of eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia continues to rise in children and adolescents.
“Weight stigma is real and children can be teased both for being underweight and overweight,” says Laurel Weaver, MD, PhD, medical director of psychiatric services for the Eating Disorder Program at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
“Combatting that stigma at home is an important part of parental support for children. We need to teach kids that health can occur at many shapes and sizes,” Dr. Weaver adds.
So how can parents and guardians talk about weight and help overweight kids, as well as underweight children, stay healthy — without worrying their comments will cause embarrassment or harm a child’s self-confidence? We asked Dr. Weaver for advice on how to have healthy conversations about diet and exercise.
- Focus on getting and staying healthy, not reaching a certain weight. “When talking about weight with your child, the focus should be on appropriate growth and well-being, not on population norms,” says Dr. Weaver. Remind your children that kids grow at different rates, and that healthy children don’t always look exactly the same size or shape.
- Children are not little adults. “It’s important for parents to encourage their children to adopt healthy eating and exercise habits, but parents have to be clear about what constitutes health for each child,” says Dr. Weaver. Children often need more calories, fats and proteins than adults in order to fuel their bodies for their level of activity (which is often higher than in adults). To start, you can encourage your child to eat a broad range of food instead of focusing on “good” and “bad” foods. Then be sure to work with your pediatrician or a nutritionist to determine the most appropriate diet for your child based on his health goals.
- Get active together. Exercise can be a fun and healthy activity, but to be most effective, families should engage in activities together,” suggests Dr. Weaver. Get outside and toss a Frisbee at the park, or play basketball together. “This is a more psychologically healthy way to promote fitness than just simply telling a child to go exercise,” she adds.