How to Help an Overweight Child
Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta has a powerful video message for you. It’s your fault if your child is overweight.
As a parent this message is particularly touchy for me.
Surely there comes a time when I can no longer blame my parents for my own issues.
Parenting in the 21st century is so guilt-ridden. Here’s another thing I can add to my list of failings as parent.
Childhood Obesity: No Simple Answers Please
When I’ve written about the challenges of children and weight problems I get some typical responses:
- From parents: “Don’t know what the problem is. I feed my children hummus and wheatgrass and they’ve never had a Happy Meal in their lives. What’s wrong with parents these days?”
- From non-parents: “Don’t get it, can’t parents just say no?”
Other parents seem to feel guilty and confused, and don’t really know what to say.
I have more than one child, and guess what? The way they respond to food, their personalities, their likes/dislikes are different.
Like adult weight issues, while the answers can seem simple, the outworking can be very challenging.
This is a work in progress for me, but here’s a few beginning steps:
Step 1: It’s a Family Issue
If you’re a parent and your children are having weight issues, there’s one thing I’ve learned.
The whole family needs to be involved.
It’s virtually impossible to guide a child into eating better without buy-in from everyone in the home.
- You can’t have one parent rewarding the child with food, while the other one keeps saying no.
- You can’t have one sibling having free access to the pantry while the other is banned.
Mixed messages don’t work for very long.
Step 2: Weight Issues Are More Than Diet Issues
It’s amazing how many adults with disordered eating patterns can remember being put on diets as children. Particularly women.
Put a child under heavy restrictions and one or more things might happen:
- They learn to hide behaviors for fear of punishment.
- The moment they are out from under your authority they have no established intrinsic basis for making good choices.
Managing weight is a whole lifestyle process. All of these factors may be contributing to a weight problem:
- Association of snacking with other pleasurable activities (during TV watching, video gameplaying, movies, family times).
- Suburban design – school is a bus trip or a car ride away (rather than a walk or bike ride).
- Devices – The instant gratification coming from an iPad is hard to compete with. Especially now that schools increasingly require children to own tablets. Limiting screen time is essential.
- Food as a reward or punishment system.
- Emotional status – Often where school is an unpleasant experience, coming home is often associated with “food on arrival”.
- No structured physical activity – Yes some children love sport. Some children don’t and daily physical training is no longer part of the curriculum.
- Unstructured mealtimes – Frequent family dinners together lead to a lower chance of being overweight.
- Lack of knowledge of healthy foods – The explosion of ready-made foods aimed at children hasn’t helped. These foods are typically laden with sugar.
- Parental habits and addictions – Very difficult to lead a child somewhere that you haven’t been yourself.
- One size does NOT fit all – As in adults, children have unique personalities. Finding what makes your child tick is essential.
My goal as a parent is to set my child up to make good choices for the rest of their life. This means guiding them to a place of ownership over their bodies and health.
As parents we are the “gatekeepers” of our homes.
However in the last few decades we’ve faced an onslaught in the form of: prolific mass-marketing to children, ‘big food’ pushing us a bewildering array of child-focused junk food, changing neighborhoods, omni-present instant gratification technology.
So I’m not going to take all the blame…
If you managed to read this far, I would love to read your thoughts.
- Taveras, E. M., Rifas‐Shiman, S. L., Berkey, C. S., Rockett, H. R., Field, A. E., Frazier, A. L., … & Gillman, M. W. (2005). Family dinner and adolescent overweight. Obesity Research, 13(5), 900-906. Study link
- Lohman, B. J., Stewart, S., Gundersen, C., Garasky, S., & Eisenmann, J. C. (2009). Adolescent overweight and obesity: links to food insecurity and individual, maternal, and family stressors. Journal of Adolescent Health, 45(3), 230-237. Study link.