Tough Subject: Parenting an Overweight Child

I appreciated this article in the Washington Post. As evident in Sarah Palin's reaction to First Lady Michelle Obama's initiative to combat childhood obesity, the issue of helping overweight children is a touchy one -- especially for parents.

But rather than blame the parents or claim that they are in denial, this article got to the heart of the matter: it is hard to parent an overweight child. On the one hand, a parent may feel concern about a child's weight, especially if the doctor says something. On the other hand, he or she may not want to say anything for fear of damaging the child's self esteem.

"We really emphasize to the parents that the most important thing is to keep the focus on their child’s health, not their weight," Mackey said. "The last thing we want is for parents to push weight dissatisfaction on kids and have kids feel bad about the way they look." For a young child, these emotions, especially if combined with parental disapproval or disappointment, can be overwhelming.

Mackey said researchers have found that focusing specifically on weight loss rarely works for children and can trigger a vicious cycle in which distressed children turn to a reliable source of comfort: food.

Instead, she advises parents to say, "I really love you, and you have one body and one brain in this life, and I want you to take care of yourself," and then discuss ways to be healthier, including an improved diet.

Hectoring a child can cause lasting harm. Mirza recalls the svelte mother who proclaimed, in front of her 5-year-old daughter, "She’s so obese." The little girl burst into tears, lamenting that she was fat and ugly. “They had been hammering at her at home," Mirza said.

Talking about a child’s weight in front of the child can "cause an over-focus on what the number means and on appearance," said Washington nutritionist Elizabeth Davenport.

Davenport cautions that while parents need to be aware of a healthful weight, they shouldn’t overreact. Before a growth spurt or puberty, many children and preteens put on extra pounds, which come off as they mature. "It ends up evening out," she said.

Of course, I wish these articles would also address any environmental reasons for the spike in childhood obesity rates in recent years. This article in Newsweek left a lasting impression on me.

But geez I feel for these parents. I know this is touchy subject, but have any of you had to deal with this issue? How did you help your children?


Popular Video