“Am I fat?”
They’re three words no parent wants to hear. But your child may say them -- or ask another weight-related question -- at some point.
“Whether your child is overweight or simply thinks she has a weight problem, it’s a common concern. And as a parent, it can be a tricky thing to address,” says Rosa Cataldo, DO, director of the Healthy Weight and Wellness Center at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital in Stony Brook, New York.
No matter your child’s size, there are a lot of ways you can talk about weight without hurting their feelings and help them find ways to be healthy. Here are six smart strategies every parent should know.
Don’t try to have a “big talk.”
If your child comes to you and wants to have a long discussion, great. But most of the time, “it’s probably going to come up in bits and pieces. And that’s OK,” Cataldo says. If you don’t make a big deal out of it, it’s more likely they’ll feel comfortable talking to you. “Kids like it when they feel like they can guide the conversation.”
That’s also true if you suspect your child is overweight. If they don’t bring up their size with you, “Consider scheduling a checkup for her with her doctor,” Cataldo advises. A health professional can tell you if their weight actually puts their health at risk and, if so, what you can do about it.
Swap statements for questions.
Your instinct might be to reassure your child. But statements like “You’re beautiful just the way you are” and “Everyone’s different” may feel “fake” to kids, says Sanam Hafeez, a school psychologist and neuropsychologist in New York City. “Even if you believe it, it isn’t specific to their situation.”
A better approach? Ask them how they feel about their weight or why they are thinking about it. “A lot of times, children aren’t going to come out and say what they’re feeling until you ask,” says Kristi King, RD, a senior clinical dietitian at Texas Children’s Hospital. “Listen to what they say, and feel free to ask more questions. Their response can tell you how to guide the conversation.”
The right question might clue you into other problems, too, like other kids bullying them. It’s also helpful to ask your child what they think would help them feel good about themselves For example, you could say, “How do you think you could be healthier?” and “What can we do as a family to make better choices?”
Watch your words.
Whether your child is 6 or 16, weight-related labels can hurt their feelings, even if you don’t mean for them to, Cataldo says. “Even as a physician, I don’t use the words ‘obesity’ or ‘overweight’ with kids. Instead, I talk about health, and say things like, ‘Being healthy is important,’ and ‘Let’s talk about how you feel good,’” she says.
For the same reason, steer clear of calling kids “fat,” “thin,” or other terms that make a judgment about their appearance.
Try to limit talking about your own looks -- or other people’s. If you talk a lot about slimming down or fret about calories or fat grams at meals, your children are more likely to worry about their own bodies. And that’s true no matter how much they weigh, according to a recent study.
Make health a family affair.
Conversations with a child about weight can be tough for any parent. But remember that what you say doesn’t matter nearly as much as what you do. If your child does have a weight problem, the best way to help them get healthy isn’t to talk to them, it’s to have your whole family make an effort to live healthier. “That way, your child won’t feel singled out and will feel more supported,” Cataldo says.
Look for fun ways to bring health home. For example, take your kids grocery shopping and cook healthy meals together. Play a game of tag or soccer as a family, and find ways to get everyone active every day.
It doesn’t matter if one of your children is overweight and another isn’t. “Slender children can still be at risk for pre-diabetes and other health problems if they eat poorly,” Cataldo says. “Your whole family should work toward a healthy lifestyle.”
As much as your child wants to be accepted by their friends, “She craves your attention and approval, too,” Hafeez says. Find ways to celebrate them everyday victories and healthy choices. Just make sure they aren’t tied to the numbers on the scale, clothing size, or other measures of how they look. For example, you can say, “It’s great that you’re choosing an apple for a snack,” or “I really love it when we bike together.”
Just as you might respond better to a boss who praises you, “kids respond to a positive attitude,” Cataldo says. “Stick with it, and show her that you’re there for her no matter what.”
Go to the pros.
Not sure how to help your child? Talk to a professional about the right steps to take. For food and nutrition advice, find a pediatric dietitian through the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. You can also ask your child’s doctor or local children’s hospital to recommend counseling services and other resources that can help children live healthfully and feel good about themselves.