mind and body

If talking to your child about weight is difficult, try action

Parents have a lot of tough topics to bring up with their kids. Sex, drugs, smoking, drinking, stranger danger, the Internet, bullying and appropriate friends are fairly standard.

But with a third of American kids being overweight or obese, a lot of parents' lists get even longer and touchier.

According to a survey by Kelton Research, parents of teens find weight a more difficult topic to discuss than any other. For parents of children ages 8 to 12, weight ties with sex as the most uncomfortable subject to raise.

Parents want to do the right thing. They certainly don't want to hurt their children. That's why they're so anxious about such important subjects.

Recently, while being interviewed about Michelle Obama's campaign addressing childhood obesity. I was asked if parents' focus on weight could backfire by making children more vulnerable to weight and eating problems.

Certainly, it's possible that harping on children will turn them off and make them rebel. But weight is not a topic to ignore.

It has been suggested that, because of obesity, today's children may have shorter lives than their parents — the first time in U.S. history that we've moved backward in this way.

So what is a concerned parent to do?

Let's start with what not to do:

• Denial. Denying that your child has a health problem — whether due to weight, eating habits or being sedentary —is not going to make it go away. Denial will only keep you from doing the best for your child. Acknowledgment is the first step.

• Enabling. When we enable someone, we get in the way of their well-being. When the parent of an overweight child buys or prepares unhealthy and tempting foods, it's not an act of love, it's making life harder for the child. Using unhealthy foods as a "reward'' is the ultimate in mixed messages.

• Shaming. A parent who constantly criticizes their child's food choices and puts them down about their weight makes the child feel shame. This leads to low self-esteem, stress, and even eating disorders. Shaming is not the same thing as a constructive, loving discussion about weight; it makes things worse rather than better.

However, there are proven, effective ways to communicate with children about weight and health — without even speaking. If talking about weight has backfired, or is too stressful to even attempt, try these actions:

• The family approach. Getting the whole family involved is the best thing a parent can do for an overweight child. Include everyone in writing a healthy grocery list and shopping for food. Swap after-dinner TV watching for a walk around the neighborhood. Trade board games for kickball or another active game. Set limits on computer and TV time for the whole family — adults included. Keep restaurant meals and take-out to a minimum. Learn to cook healthy, tasty meals together.

• The positive/indirect approach: Instead of focusing on appearance, focus on praising behaviors that will have a positive effect on weight and health. For example: "Wow! You're really getting good at basketball,'' or "You picked out some great, colorful veggies for dinner tonight — they look yummy.''

• The modeling approach. Making sure your child sees you choosing and enjoying healthy foods and activities is a lot more powerful than anything you can say. Being a good model of health and fitness will have longer-lasting effects on your child than any diet.

It's time for a better way to communicate. Instead of telling them what they need to do, seek effective and creative ways to start the conversation and keep it going.

Lavinia Rodriguez is a Tampa clinical psychologist who specializes in weight management. Contact her through her website, www.FatMatters.com, or at (813) 240-9557.

If talking to your child about weight is difficult, try action 10/07/11 [Last modified: Friday, October 7, 2011 5:30am]

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