I get this question a lot from my clients, usually concerning a teenage daughter: “How do I deal with my overweight child; what can I do to help?”
I know from experience that handling these issues badly can make things even more difficult for our children.
Whether they express it to you or not, weight can be a sensitive issue to a child, and the source of so much pain.
Like most adults, they often feel powerless to resolve it. Only for them, the stakes are higher since they may feel judged daily by the harshest critics in the world—other teenagers. To those clients, I suggest treading lightly and taking heed to the following advice.
Keep it positive.
Encourage and give praise for life affirming activities like exercising and eating healthy. Don’t focus on what is done wrong, which may bring feelings of shame or cause them to run to food as a way of coping with those feelings.
Be sensitive to their feelings when talking about their health.
Saying things like, “We are worried about your weight,” or “Should you be eating that?” only makes a person feel shame and embarrassment. This usually results in more eating. Making someone feel bad about the problem is what the bullies at school do all day long.
Offer encouragement by providing activities that improve self-esteem like karate, dance or any other sports activity. What they need is love and support, not criticism from the one place they need to feel the safest—home.
Don’t allow bulling at home.
Don’t allow siblings to tease an overweight child. Nor tell ugly stories about family members who used to be thin but are now fat saying things like, “You don’t want to be like them do you?” We think that cautionary tales will help motivate people to change, but they don’t. They just make kids feel bad about themselves because they can see the family views someone who is overweight as being inferior.
Make sure your child feels loved and accepted as they are.
When children receive messages that their weight is an issue, they begin to feel inferior to others. Life will (incorrectly) teach them over and over again that being overweight means they aren’t good enough. We help children the most by teaching them that we love and accept them as they are, no matter what.
Make being healthy a family project.
I’ve observed that families who have the most success shifting their child’s habits are the ones who start eating healthier and getting more exercise as a whole family. Also, putting one child on a diet makes that child feel isolated and separate making healthy eating feel like punishment for being bad. Trust me, everyone in the family could benefit from eating better, even the family pets.
Pack your kids’ lunch.
It is safe to assume that all food served at school is unhealthy. If we want our children to eat a healthy lunch, we have to pack it ourselves.
Don’t think a “diet” will fix this.
Unless the doctor is recommending it, putting a child on a strict diet isn’t nearly as good as helping them build their self-esteem. That way, they will want to keep their bodies healthy and well nourished. I often hear from clients how their parents put them on diets at young ages and this caused them to learn, very early on, that they weren’t good enough just as they were. Plus, diets usually don’t work. In addition to feeling not good enough, they also learn to feel like a failure.
Handle our own weight issues.
Usually, when someone feels embarrassed or upset about a child’s weight it’s because they, too, have an unhealed wound connected with this issue. Getting help for our own feelings about weight will not only set a good example, but can help us learn how to help our children heal their issues.
Emotional eating is one of the main causes of a child’s weight problems. The weight itself can either be caused by low self-esteem resulting in emotional eating, and/or be a source of a lot of the pain causing the person to overeat. Either way, getting help for your child’s pain can really help them find healthier ways of dealing with their feelings than eating or any other destructive coping habits.
The truth is the time of our greatest influence over our children won’t last forever. Think about weight loss less as a health issue and more as a self-esteem issue.
Helping our children create healthy self-esteem will teach them to love themselves and respect their bodies. This will empower them to make life-affirming choices in all areas of their lives. We can’t be with our children 24/7 to make sure they make the right choices.
Ultimately, they have to do that for themselves.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Author: Jill Thomas
Apprentice Editor: Guenevere Neufeld / Editor: Travis May
Photo: Public Domain Images