Weight is, indeed, a weighty subject for everyone. But when you see your child struggling with a weight problem, what’s the right way to approach it? How do you talk to your child about their weight?
Maybe by not mentioning their weight at all.
A 2013 study in JAMA Pediatrics entitled “Parent Conversations About Healthful Eating and Weight: Association with Adolescent Disordered Eating Behavior” found that words, especially from parents, mattered in terms of weight and body issues.
“Mothers and fathers who engaged in weight-related conversations had adolescents who were more likely to diet, use unhealthy weight control behaviors, and engage in binge eating,” the study reported. “Overweight/obese adolescents whose mothers engaged in conversations that were focused only on healthful eating behaviors were less likely to diet and use unhealthy weight control behaviors. Both parents engaging in healthy eating conversations had best results.”
The study’s author, Dr. Jerica M. Berge, Director of Healthy Eating and Activity across the Lifespan (HEAL) Center at University of Minnesota Medical School, reiterates the idea that health, not weight, is what’s important.
“Parents should focus their conversations on their child’s health behaviors rather than on their weight, shape or size,” Dr. Berge told Parentology. “For example, talking about the need to eat healthy so their child has strong bones and muscles, or brain power versus telling them they need to lose weight is key. Keeping conversations focused on health helps the child have a better idea of what ‘to do,’ versus what ‘not to do.'”
Help Your Child Have a Healthy Body Image
Dena Cabrera, Psy.D., CEDS, the Executive Clinical Director of the Rosewood Centers for Eating Disorders, sums it up elegantly in her Eating Disorder Catalogue article, “How to Help Your Child Have a Healthy Body Image.”
“Ideally, our sons and daughters will develop normally, without interference. The goal is to help them establish their identity, separate from their weight, size, shape, and appearance. We want them to develop a sense of self and identity based on substance and heart. This is difficult given we live in a culture where ‘image is everything,'” Cabrera wrote.
Cabrera goes on to say that reality and idealism need to be balanced.
“However, helping your children develop a solid understanding of self is crucial in fostering your children’s identity and thus body image. And it starts with being genuine with others, real with your heart, and open with your mind. It’s about encouraging self-discovery, uniqueness, and individuality in our children and bridging those traits with strong values and morals. Yet to say that looks are not important would be invalidating and simply wrong, both for ourselves and for our children. The problem is when our bodies and our looks are the only thing that define us.“
Learning to Change the Language
Liz (not her real name) had to change her family’s narrative around these subjects when her teenage son, Eli, developed an eating disorder that required treatment.
“Eli started to develop issues around food and eating when he was about age 11. He started to gain weight around that time and developed certain obsessive habits around food. At first, we took him to a nutritionist who talked a lot about eating healthy and portion control, but was really about trying control what, and how much, he was eating,” Liz told Parentology. “This worked to a limited degree when he mostly ate at home, but as he got into middle school he had more access to whatever food he could buy at school and tended to eat food that was not permitted at home.”
Eventually, this led to binging behavior, secrets, and shame.
“Our family had to face our unconscious judgments about weight and body image. I always remember a therapist telling me that I was actually body shaming my son, which made me angry at the time, but after thinking about it, I knew she was right,” Liz said. “I have come to realize that our culture is very complex about food and equates people who are overweight with being less worthy. There is so much fear and panic about having an overweight kid, that communication gets shut down and kids feel judged, which leads to a vicious cycle of more disordered eating.”
Eli went through an outpatient treatment program and is doing much better. He has also lost some weight, but that wasn’t the main component of his illness, or the main goal of his recovery.
Liz has some advice to offer parents.
“My son was taught in treatment for eating disorders that there is no healthy and unhealthy food. Food is neutral. The notion that there are some good and some bad foods leads to a morality around food — as in I’m ‘bad’ if I eat this food,” Liz explained. “This leads to a cycle of yearning for forbidden foods and then shame when we do eat them. Often it’s the secrecy around the eating of certain foods that creates the problem. Also, the term ‘healthy’ has become just another code word for foods that are deemed acceptable to eat, and just another way of judging.”
It’s Not Just Your Child, It’s Your Family
There’s a saying that a family is like a mobile: if one piece moves, the entire mobile must shift. And that’s pretty much what has to happen if you have a child with a weight issue or an eating disorder.
It might mean that meal times and meal choices change to reflect different preferences, through food groups, portion size, or both. It might involve the entire family becoming more active as a group, by going on walks, bike rides, or entering a 5 or 10K charity event (that you all have to train for). Whatever your family’s strategy might be, it can’t involve finger pointing or food restriction. That means that a family pizza or ice cream night is definitely on — as long as it’s not every night.
Berge agrees that the one-for-all and all-for-one approach is the best.
“It is also helpful for parents to focus the conversation on the entire family versus a specific child,” Berge said. “For example, the parent can say eating healthy is important to our family so we can all live long healthy lives, rather than pointing out one specific child or family member.”