With news that kids across America are gaining more weight, I thought we should look at an interesting issue connected to the whole childhood obesity issue - the fact that kids don’t perceive that their parents are offering enough support surrounding weight, food and activity issues.
How parents ignore weight:
Current research shows that most parents underestimate the consequences of weight issues in their own kids, but even when parents may get the issue, they practice various denial techniques. It’s an odd situation, because you wouldn’t expect your child to manage his own vaccine schedule or plan dental visits and other health minded stuff, but when it comes to weight, many parents apparently do leave their kid to fend for themselves.
I’m sure you’ve met parents who sit and watch as their child has three helpings of ice cream or nine servings of tarter sauce yet says nothing. There are parent who ignore doctors who say their kids weigh too much and parents who tell an obviously overweight child that they look like they’re in great shape.
None of these behaviors are useful for kids because like it or not (and ignore it or not) weight is linked to health.
- Is it really that dangerous for kids to be overweight?
- Weight problems affect teens differently than younger kids
Not all of this can be blamed on parents of course. Obviously this is an extremely tough issue to discuss, even for adults. Telling parents that they should talk to their kids about weight is overwhelming for many – in fact, as I’ve pointed out before, research shows parents are more comfortable discussing drug use and sex with kids than weight.
On top of discomfort, many health care professionals also refuse to confront this issue and we lack vital parent education surrounding childhood health and especially weight in this country. Socially, we’ve also created a spiral problem, because more kids are overweight, which makes it seem more normal and okay. Overweight kids no longer look overweight when excess weight is the norm.
Consequences of ignoring the issue
Still, no matter the cause, many parents are in the dark about their child’s BMI, calorie intake or exercise levels, and there are consequences when parents refuse to discuss weight, diet and activity with kids.
A major consequence of ignoring this issue is that your child may assume he’s a healthy weight and may assume that he’s getting plenty of exercise. Some research shows that teens, especially teen girls, tend to think they’re underweight, even if they’re overweight and overestimate their activity levels.
Another consequence is that many kids aren’t in the dark about their weight, want help and don’t get it. Youth comments on weight loss forums show that while their choices about how to help themselves may not be perfect, many kids are aware that there’s a problem and they try tactics like dieting or excessive exercise that can be harmful without adult support.
Many kid say they’re unhappy about excess weight because it makes it hard to fit it, find clothes that fit or get a date. Other research shows that children as young as 7 years of age are unhappy if they’re overweight and may even try to lose weight without asking their parents for help, which puts them at an increased risk of developing eating problems.
Addressing the issue with kids in a non-scary way:
Actually, I think discussing weight with kids will always be a little nerve wracking, but if you consider how kids think, it may get easier to discuss. On the kid forums I mentioned, youth noted some common reasons that they overeat were, “addiction to food” and “boredom.” Kids said their top food triggers are candy, chocolate, ice cream, chips, cookies and cake, fast food and pizza and many noted that they wished their parents would stop buying these items.
Key issues kids tend to address on forums I visited included eating because they feel too much stress, eating to feel comfort, eating to numb themselves, eating because the food is there and simply eating because a parent doesn’t say no. Some kids noted they eat because, ”Junk food is like a best friend.”
Almost all kids who left lengthy comments on weight loss forums eventually said that they felt they needed help to say no to treats and junk food. The likely candidate to help a child say no is a parent.
Although conversations about weight are always difficult and it’s super tempting to avoid them you should know that:
- Most overweight kids (and even adults) won’t lose weight and get fit without some sort of support system in place.
- Food topics are extremely confusing for everyone, so consider how confusing they must be for a child who doesn’t get parent support.
- Learning how to eat healthily is an actual skill, as is learning how to get the proper amount of exercise or activity.
- Weight isn’t an easy issue to hide. Everyone (I’m betting) is aware when they don’t look or feel their best. If you stay mum about these issues, your child may simply believe that weight and activity aren’t things you’re supposed to discuss, which perpetrates the current societal issue of ignoring weight and activity.
- Not talking truthfully about weight means you’re leaving it up to your kids to decide what weight means – and most kids tend to connect weight with looks when in reality they should learn that weight is a health issue not a “looks” issue.
Start the conversation:
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has some very good advice about childhood weight, which is “Don’t Talk, Do Something,” although I’d suggest both conversation and doing something, since kids at forums seemed to want their parents to speak up. This organization advises that you start making lifestyle changes as a family – make it easy for kids to eat smart and move often by, “Serving regular, balanced family meals and snacks, turning off televisions, video games and computers and looking for ways to spend fun, active time together.”
It’s okay and normal to be nervous about discussing weight with your kids, but it’s not okay to avoid it. It’s tough to be a parent sometimes, but at the core, as the parent, you owe it to your kids to offer honest support and education about issues that affect their health such as drug, sex and yes, even weight and activity.
In general: Be honest, make sure you’re doing the bare minimum (at least) and discuss weight issues in a way that relates to health, not clothing size or status. Weight should not be about fitting in or looking cool in a swimsuit, but about feeling good and being healthy.
To gain more skills regarding how to talk to your kids about weight, without freaking everyone out, check out the following links:
- Talk about healthy weight with your teen without harming body image
- How to talk to kids about weight
- How Can I Help My Overweight Teenager?
- 50 Tips for Helping Your Overweight Child Stay Healthy - an extremely useful guide as it really does a great job of focusing on health not looks or impressions.