Parents, Kids, Doctors Balk at Talk About Weight

WebMD/Sanford Survey: Sex, Drugs Easier to Discuss Than Weight Control

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on September 13, 2011

Sept. 14, 2011 -- Doctors say it's the most important thing parents can discuss with their kids. Yet both parents and kids would rather talk about anything else -- including drugs and teen sex -- than weight.

Nearly a quarter (22%) of parents are uncomfortable discussing the risks of being overweight with their kids. For parents of kids ages 8 to 12, only sex is a more uncomfortable topic.

And for the parents of teens, no other topic makes them squirm more: not sex (12% uncomfortable), smoking (6% uncomfortable), drugs (6% uncomfortable), or alcohol (5% uncomfortable). The findings come from Kelton Research surveys of 1,299 parents of kids ages 8 to 17 and of 1,078 kids ages 8 to 17, sponsored by WebMD and Sanford Health.

With a third of U.S. kids already overweight -- and 17% already obese -- weight control is one of the nation's most pressing issues, says WebMD pediatrician Hansa Bhargava, MD, medical director of the Sanford/WebMD Fit program.

"If you want to prevent obesity, you have to be talking to the kids who are normal weight, not just those who are overweight," Bhargava says. "There seems to be an all-around misunderstanding of this. Parents should be talking about healthy weight from the get-go, and the conversation should be going on everywhere -- at home, in school, and with health care providers."

Parents know overweight is a problem: 37% think it's a risk to at least one of their children. They see it as a bigger threat to their kids than drugs (34%) or cigarettes (33%), and nearly as big a threat as alcohol (42%) and premature sexual activity (42%).

But who's supposed to talk to their kids? It's their doctors' job, 19% of parents say. Yet only 1% of parents think it's primarily a doctor's job to talk to their kids about sex, drugs, or alcohol. Only 2% say it's a doctor's job to talk about the risks of smoking.

In a Medscape poll of 624 pediatricians and pediatric nurse practitioners and physician assistants, 90% named weight as one of the most important topics parents should discuss with their children. That's more than named safe sex (73%), smoking (73%), drug use (72%), and excessive drinking (68%).

What makes parents so reluctant to talk to children about the risks of being overweight? Many don't think it's a problem until their children are obviously overweight, says family psychologist Susan Bartell, PsyD, a consultant to WebMD on the surveys.

"But the next issue I see often is parents are really afraid they will trigger an eating disorder," Bartell tells WebMD. "And then the other thing is they don't know how to talk to kids about weight. They think they will hurt their kids' feelings or damage their self-esteem."

And kids aren't making this talk any easier. Nearly three-fourths of them (72%) say the discussion would be more embarrassing to them than to their parents.

Talking to Kids About Weight

So how does a parent do it? Bhargava says it's easier if you start with messages about healthy behaviors at an earlier age. And even then, Bartell advises, there are pitfalls to avoid.

"You have to use very positive words. You can't talk about a child being overweight, or not trying hard enough, or going on a diet -- those are red flags," she says. "Focus on healthy choices -- what you will do together as a family. Tell them you know change is slow, and that you are really proud of them making healthy changes along with the rest of the family."

What kind of changes? Healthy eating and healthy amounts of physical exercise are of course key. But there's more to it than that, says pediatrics professor Mike Bergeron, PhD, senior scientist at Sanford Children's Research Center.

"Certainly healthy food and physical activity are key. But that is interdependent on how kids feel about themselves, and this keys into mood and sleep," Bergeron says. "Kids have better approaches when they feel rested, confident, socially involved, and all of that."

The Kelton Research surveys sponsored by WebMD and Sanford have a margin of error of 3.9%.

Fit is a partnership between WebMD and Sanford, described as "a new national initiative aimed at promoting health and wellness and preventing childhood obesity among kids ages 2 to 18." It features online destinations for children, teens, and parents.

Show Sources


Sanford Health/WebMD Obesity Surveys, Kelton research, conducted July 19 and July 28, 2011.

Medscape health care practitioner survey.

News release, WebMD/Sanford.

Mike Bergeron, PhD, senior scientist, Sanford Children's Research Center, Sioux Falls, S.D.

Hansa Bhargava, MD, medical editor, WebMD.

Susan Bartell, PsyD, family psychologist, Port Washington, N.Y.

CDC web site: "Childhood Overweight and Obesity."

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