Psychotherapist Meredith Abend: Now there's another reason for moms to worry about their daughters' weight -- and this could be the most shocking.
We are all aware that the obesity rate is rising alarmingly in this country. We recognize the serious health dangers of carrying excessive weight -- but a new study from researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina has uncovered a significant risk not widely known: Young, obese girls have a far greater likelihood of having sex earlier in life, having unprotected sex and having sex with multiple partners. While it seems clear that the more obese that young girls are, the higher the risk, the study also suggests that even slightly overweight girls will engage in sex earlier -- and without using condoms or other forms of protection.
These statistics are enough to make any mother panic. But while it's far from clear how to stop a young woman from engaging in sex, mothers can do many things to counteract the risks:
1. Talk to your kids about sex and sexuality as early as possible. Puberty used to be something we linked to the teen years -- but now there are young girls showing puberty-related signs as early as 7 years old. All girls, heavy or not, need to be prepared for the physical and emotional changes they may experience during puberty. It is crucial to talk it through and to answer your child's questions in a casual, nonjudgmental, age-appropriate manner. Many studies support the position that kids whose parents talk to them about sex are less prone to have multiple partners or partake in sexually risky behaviors. Preparing them for these social, physical, psychological and emotional changes ahead of time is essential.
2. Give your kids clear boundaries and guidelines. Children desperately desire limits, and if parents do not provide them, their anxiety levels will increase and they will wonder who is in charge. When anxiety is internalized, it can bring about emotional eating and body-image issues. The idea that food is comfort and provides immediate gratification is very dangerous. Try not to use food as a soother or as a reward. While it's tempting to say, "You've had a hard day; let's get some ice cream," over time, these messages may easily lead to food-related problems.
3. Create an esteem-boosting team for your child. Support your child's expression of his or her feelings and needs, and make your home one wherein all body shapes are accepted. Tell your child in specific terms that you value him/her. When kids feel different, they feel lonely. If a parent is present and accepting, it can help.
4. Childhood obesity is difficult to beat, but with a lot of support and a realistic game plan, it can happen. Instead of focusing on the pounds lost, focus on fun family athletic activities and come together to create healthy meals and snacks. Make the weight loss/healthier lifestyle a family pursuit, and ensure that the child who is struggling feels supported and part of your team. In terms of which foods to eat, registered dietitian Robin Berlin advises that you "avoid labeling any foods as 'taboo,' and encourage good food choices by creating a healthy home environment. Rather than focusing on what not to eat, focus on all the delicious, healthy foods they can have. Eat together as a family as much as possible, and try to not eat on the go."