Have you had a heart-to-heart chat with your child about his weight lately? If you said no, you're not alone. One survey of parents found they would rather discuss sex, drugs, alcohol, or smoking than talk about weight; about 1 in 5 admitted they have never done it. Of those, almost all said they avoided the topic because their kids are already at a healthy weight.
Yet health care professionals say they wish parents would start speaking up, and that weight is the "most important health topic" families should discuss. At any rate, the numbers don't lie: About 17 percent of American kids ages 2-19 are obese, and the childhood obesity rate in the U.S. has more than tripled in the past 30 years.
So we know that having a talk about weight (actually, ongoing talks) is important. The bigger question is how to do it. Many parents worry that confronting a child about her weight will "cause a complex," prompting her to eat more in an emotional response, develop an eating disorder, and/or shut down and refuse to address the topic further. Here's how you can get past that fear and bring up this tough topic.
Talk About Weight in Terms of Health
It may help to remember that the important factor here is health. Bodies can be many shapes and sizes and still be healthy. Making, discussing, and praising healthy choices allows you to maintain a continuing dialogue with your child about what our muscles, bones, and brains need to grow and be strong. When the subject of weight does come up, terms such as "above average weight" or even "overweight" may sound less judgmental, and more health-focused, than words like "chubby" or "obese."
If you need to encourage your child to change his habits, do so positively. Instead of criticizing or nagging ("Why are you eating so many cookies?"), stock your kitchen with healthy treats and then praise your child when he chooses one for his snack. Help him learn how to read his own hunger cues. Avoid using food as a punishment or a reward, or calling certain foods "bad" or "good." (Sometimes it helps to look at foods as "anytime," "sometimes," or "once in a while" foods.)
Talk About Weight with Everyone
Weight loss, weight management, and healthy living should be a family affair. Teaching healthy habits and attitudes is easier and more effective when kids are young. But it's never too late to start. If one child in your family needs to lose weight, or adjust her diet, apply changes to the whole household so the overweight child doesn't feel singled out. Talk to your child's doctor about any concerns you have (privately, if necessary). Ask for a referral to a dietitian if you need help in improving your family's eating habits. Both parents, as well as any other caretakers, should be on the same page.
Whether or not anyone in your home is overweight, don't allow name-calling or comparisons of bodies. If your child makes a disparaging comment about his own or someone else's body, tell him that kind of language isn't acceptable. This may open the door to a helpful discussion about body image, teasing, and the strong emotions that these can bring out.
Talk About Weight Without Saying a Word
Your child learns a lot about weight, health, and body image from your actions as well as your words. You can be a positive role model by eating healthfully, getting enough sleep, and making time in your day for physical activity. You can also model a healthy body image (by avoiding, say, referring to yourself as "fat"). If you're trying to make changes, talk about them with your child: "I'm trying to eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, so I can keep my body strong and healthy" (not: "I can't eat ice cream ever again. It goes right to my hips!").
Look for Underlying Causes
If your child is overweight, she needs your unconditional love and support. Be sure that she sees a doctor, both to look for any medical cause of weight gain and to discuss safe and healthy ways to lower her BMI. Some tweens or teens may prefer to talk with a doctor or nurse without you present.
Some kids overeat, or avoid physical activity, or call themselves "fat" or "ugly," because they are bored, anxious, insecure, or unhappy. A talk about weight may really be a talk about these feelings, where they're coming from, and how to help.
Raising Fit Kids survey, WebMD and Sanford Health, September 2011.
National Center for Health Statistics: Prevalence of Obesity Among Children and Adolescents: United States, Trends 1963-1965 Through 2007-2008. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, June 2010.