You love him no matter his size, but he’s unhappy with it. How do you talk to him about losing weight? Psst ... Don't say "DIET!"
“Am I fat, Mom?” your son asks, making you twist inside because you know it’s true. But you don’t say, “Yes, honey, you are.” Instead, you say, “No, you’re not fat, you’re perfect just the way you are,” or something like that until you can successfully change the subject. Only, the subject doesn’t go away. You both tuck it away and try to move on, but your heart aches for him, knowing he’s struggling.
For parents of overweight children, it’s a common dilemma: The child’s overweight, he knows it and he’s unhappy about it. You want him to be happier with himself, but raising the subject and trying to suggest some kind of exercise and diet routine is painfully difficult, so it gets put off, and all the while the burden remains. How do you go about talking to your child about losing weight? The truth is, at some point, it’s important to be compassionate by gently resolving to help him find ways to get into better shape.
“Most overweight children know they’re overweight, and they may have been teased about it or may know that carrying extra weight causes them more difficulty in classes like physical education or keeping up with kids on the playground or in the gym,” says Don W. Morgan, Ph.D., director of the Center for Physical Activity and Health in Youth at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro.
Conversations about a child’s weight can be fraught with psychological land mines, says Melinda Sothern, Ph.D., author of Trim Kids (William Morrow Paperbacks). “Mainly having the whole family take on a healthier lifestyle is ideal,” she says, “for everybody to eat as well as possible, as nutritiously as possible, so the overweight child is not singled out,” she says.
Easy Does It
Talking to your child about losing weight is as difficult as talking with your child about sex, only maybe more so because weight issues are deeply personal for children. One of the ways you can take the pressure off of yourself is to visit the pediatrician and let him know in advance that you’d like him to mention your child’s weight. Pediatricians are skilled at working with children and have a lot of techniques for taking the stress out of situations. After seeing the doctor, when the moment is right, try to segue into a light conversation, for example, saying something like,”Well, for us it’s so easy to put on extra weight. Let’s come up with some ways we can get some exercise in, what do you think?”
“Young kids usually don’t understand that their bodies look a certain way because of the foods they eat or the amount of TV they watch,” says Sothern. You can help your child make the connection by saying something like, “I know you don’t like being heavier than your friends. I can help you change that if you’ll let me.”
“How you discuss your child’s weight problem can make a huge difference in helping him deal with it,” says Sothern. Let him know that being active is something you can do together. “How about we take a bike ride together after dinner twice a week? It’ll be fun, and we can both get in shape.”
Your overweight child needs a wake-up call to get more exercise and eat better. But don’t put him on a diet and don’t put him on the scale regularly. Making fitness a family affair will help your child stick to a routine and also let him feel supported. Set some easy goals at first and keep them modest initially so he doesn’t think of exercise as a chore or punishment.
“Physical activity should be a family affair – everyone needs to work toward becoming fitter and healthier,” says Morgan. “Create family-oriented opportunities for your children to eat well and be active. Avoid focusing on an overweight child by saying, ‘We’re going to work on your weight problem’ – everyone is in this together!” Morgan adds.
If your child has a friend who wants to be physically active with him, that’s great since your child won’t feel alone on the journey, but Morgan emphasizes the importance of parental help. “Most overweight kids won’t lose weight without some level of adult help and structuring of eating and activity options,” Morgan says. “That’s where parents and other family members can help by joining in to get fitter and healthier together — it’s not just about the one fat kid in the family who needs help,” he adds, noting that getting your child’s pediatrician on board can also support your efforts with a consistent message about the positive benefits of a healthy lifestyle.
Follow a similar approach with him toward food. If your son eats ice cream every day, try switching to a low-fat version or sherbet — let him pick the option — and tell him it will help to cut it back to three servings a week. Also, let him select fruits he’d like to try. Introduce him to smoothies and making unique snacks — you can find all kinds of healthy snack ideas on Pinterest.
Be the Role Model He Needs
As far as eating and being active goes, your role includes changing out what you stock in your pantry so temptations don’t make eating better hard on him. Being more active yourself sets a great example.
“Role-modeling a healthy lifestyle is no different from role-modeling kindness or honesty,” says Morgan. “Parents should be strong promoters of healthy living practices, regardless of their own weight status. If you’re overweight, join in with your child — walk together, cook together, go shopping for nutritious foods together — so that both of you can become healthier,” he adds.
Local Help for Overweight Kids
If your child is heavy and he needs help losing weight, the Pediatric Weight Management Clinic at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt can help. Serving children ages 2 – 17, the clinic offers individualized evaluations and treatments with doctors or nurse practitioners and a registered dietician. The focus is on behavior changes with eating, exercise, media use and sleep habits. For more info, call 936-5326 or visit childrenshospital.vanderbilt.org/weightmanagement.