Ms. Meyers was a fat teen whose parents sent her to Weight Watchers. Sadly, the cause of her weight gain—depression—was left untreated.
Did You Know?
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 1 in 5 children in the United States is obese. That's tripled since the 1980's.
- Obesity in kids has been called “one of the most stigmatizing and least socially acceptable conditions in childhood” by health care professionals.
- Overweight youngsters are at a higher risk for health problems such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, asthma, sleep apnea, and even cancer.
- Overweight kids are more likely to struggle with low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and poor academic performance.
It's a Family Problem, Not a Kid Problem
If you were a fat kid while growing up, you remember how devastating it was. No matter how thin you became as an adult, the emotional scars from being an overweight child stayed with you forever. To prevent their kids from experiencing this kind of prolonged suffering, many parents intervene with the best of intentions but with disastrous results.
When inserting themselves into the situation, moms and dads must tread lightly or they can make matters worse. When they see their child's fat as a symptom of a larger problem within the family unit (not just a failing on the kid's part), they're more likely to find workable solutions. They can then implement a plan that helps everyone in the household get fit and healthy, both physically and emotionally.
6 Ways to Help an Overweight Child
1. Consider that their weight gain may be due to depression.
2. Understand that they don't need you as their diet and exercise coach.
3. Let them know that they're not alone in their weight struggle.
4. Have a positive attitude about exercise.
5. Acknowledge the role that you played in their weight gain.
6. Love them unconditionally.
Each of these ways to help an overweight youngster is explained and described fully below.
1. Consider That Their Weight Gain May Be Due to Depression
According to a study in the American Journal of Public Health, kids who suffer from depression are more likely to gain weight. After starting my period as a pre-teen, I added a whopping 40 pounds in less than a year to my five foot frame. My parents thought I was blue because of this sudden weight gain. In reality, though, the weight gain was preceded by an overwhelming sadness brought on by hormonal changes. Just like mentally ill adults who self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, I numbed my pain with what was available to me as a kid: food.
This was 40 years ago when we didn't know much about depression. People rarely discussed it because it carried a heavy stigma. It was seen as dark, mysterious, abnormal, and far outside the experience of children and teens.
Today, though, most parents are keenly aware that young people can and do suffer from depression. Moreover, they know that these folks can't just "snap out of it" as we once believed but need intervention. Signs of depression to look for include the following:
- a dramatic and sudden weight gain (or weight loss)
- a striking change in eating habits
- a lack of energy
- a withdrawal from friends, hobbies, and favorite activities
- an excessive amount of worrying
- feelings of shame, guilt, and unworthiness
- sleeping too much or too little
- distorted thinking
- suicidal thoughts
2. Understand That They Don't Need You as Their Diet and Exercise Coach
Parents head down the wrong road when they start nitpicking their children's appearance, monitoring their caloric intake, and pushing them to exercise. The more parents urge their youngsters to lose weight—making it the center of their relationship—the more kids resent and resist it. They want unconditional love from mom and dad—something they don't get from the rest of the world that judges so harshly. They want their parents to cherish them no matter what their size.
Youngsters don't take kindly to nagging, especially when they're teens. While moms and dads think they're showing concern, all that the kids hear is: I'm no good. They don't love me. They're ashamed of me.
Julie Hanks, a licensed clinical social worker, says the biggest misstep parents make is trying to micromanage food intake. This, in turn, creates a power struggle between the adult and child. Words of advice coming from a professional (a doctor, nutritionist, life coach, counselor, or exercise instructor and not a parent) have far more impact and hurt a lot less.
In this video, a family therapist details five common mistakes that parents make with an overweight child.
3. Let Them Know That They're Not Alone in Their Weight Struggle
According to a study in the International Journal of Obesity, childhood body weight is strongly influenced by genes. Some kids are at a greater risk for becoming fat because they've inherited genes from mom and dad that make their bodies put on pounds easily. This trait was highly beneficial hundreds of years ago when food was scarce and humans had to search for it. Today, though, it's highly detrimental when we're surrounded by tempting high-calorie treats and lead sedentary lifestyles in front of screens.
Youngsters need to know the truth about their genetics. They need to hear stories about other family members who struggle with their weight. Because they're egocentric, kids often don't see that others around them share the same problem.
Nothing helps a fat child more than having parents who are good role models, eating healthy foods and exercising regularly. Experts agree that these 10 changes in a family's eating habits will make a huge difference in the life of an obese youngster:
- Have dinner together with no screens, focusing on mindful eating and making conversation.
- Cut way back on processed foods and sugary snacks.
- Prepare meals at home so you can control ingredients and portions. Avoid fast-food restaurants.
- Always have healthy snacks on hand: carrot sticks, apples, bananas, yogurt, whole grain crackers and pretzels, rice cakes, popcorn, and trail mix.
- Talk about healthy eating, not dieting.
- Drink water instead of soda, sports drinks, and juice.
- Have breakfast. Kids who eat in the morning are less likely to become obese.
- Cut back on fat content.
- Read food labels with your kids.
- Eat whole foods: fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and grains.
4. Have a Positive Attitude About Exercise
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children and teens should exercise for one hour each day and the majority of that should be aerobic. Since exercise is essential to maintaining a healthy weight, kids need parents who take pride in being physically fit. They need moms and dads who lead family hikes, take the stairs instead of the elevator, and walk instead of drive. They need parental role models who make movement a joyful part of their day through yoga, biking, skating, and dancing. They need moms and dads who play sports not to become über athletes but because they love doing it.
Mark MacDonald, a health expert and author of Body Confidence, says parents should focus on making the entire family fit rather than singling out the overweight child. He says that going on family walks together is a good first step to getting everyone on board. He suggests starting small with just a 5-10 minute stroll around the neighborhood and building toward hour-long hikes in nature.
5. Acknowledge the Role That You Played in Their Weight Gain
Acknowledging your failings as a parent goes a long way in helping overweight children. They didn't get that way by themselves, and they need you to take some responsibility. In order to lose pounds and keep them off, they need everyone in the household to make major changes. Otherwise, they'll feel unsupported, get frustrated, and give up.
Today, there is a plethora of tempting entertainment options that keep kids from moving their bodies. Matt Young, an expert on physical literacy, says children spend an average of 7.4 hours a day on screens: computers, TV's, Smartphones, and video games. He urges moms and dads to limit their use and push kids outside to pursue a wide-range of games, sports, and activities.
Young believes that parents do the wrong thing by having their children specialize in only one sport such as soccer, tennis, or baseball. He claims that this is a mistake because kids typically drop out of that sport when they become teens (brought on by burnout or injury). Then they don't have another one to fall back on and become inactive.
6. Love Them Unconditionally
In addition to the sadness brought on by hormonal changes, I was depressed because of my unhappy home life. I suffered from what Dr. Margo Maine calls “father hunger,” an emptiness caused by my dad being physically present in our home but emotionally absent. I wanted his affection and affirmation, but he was too wrapped up in his own dissatisfaction with life to care about my needs.
To fill the emptiness in my heart and numb the pain, I ate to excess. Ice cream, donuts, hamburgers, and french fries became the hugs, kisses, and compliments I never got from dad. When I read Dr. Maine's life-changing book, Father Hunger, I saw myself in the pages and realized that I had to start filling myself up with things other than food. I had to accept my dad's rejection, understanding it was about him and not about me.
This video explains how we should combat childhood obesity at home, at school, and in society by teaching physical literacy.
What do you think?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2018 McKenna Meyers
McKenna Meyers (author) on July 24, 2020:
Julia, don’t be too hard on yourself. Having an overweight child is a trying, tricky situation for parents to maneuver. The best place to start is at the pediatrician’s office. Your son will respect what the doctor, an objective professional, has to say. They may refer you to a dietitian, nutritionist, health coach, or family therapist. If your son is obsessed with food (as I was for many years), he’s leading a tortured existence and needs some relief. If you’re breaking down, you need support so you can be there for your family. A professional’s input will allow you to step away from being someone your son sees as a food tyrant and step back into being a mom who loves and accepts him unconditionally. I wish you and him the very best.
Julia on July 23, 2020:
Hello. I have six children. My first one is ten years old , and he is obese. The other children are quite slim. He has always been bigger than his peers, but started gaining weight rapidly since he was three. He is obsessed with food. I have been battling this battle for years. I always loose this battle and he keeps gaining weight. I am trying to limit and control portions, he has been in swim team for four years. I know that I have made mistakes, and I blame myself all the time. My relationship with him is very difficult as he gets upset with anything I say or do, twists my words. We can’t connect as If the food and his weight stand between us. Emotionally I am breaking down, I cannot go on. Dinner time is a torture to both him and myself as he always searches for more, and I have to say no. On the other hand I am afraid if I let it go and do not pay attention, he will be heavier and heavier. Thank you
McKenna Meyers (author) on August 26, 2019:
You're welcome, Tam. I'm glad you were open to the message. Your daughter is lucky to have you.
Tam on August 26, 2019:
Thank you. My daughter struggles with her weight and I often feel I am causing her more pain trying to help her. I needed to hear that I am her parent first, not a coach, dietian or councillor.
McKenna Meyers (author) on January 05, 2018:
Thanks, Bill. For the first time in my life, I'm not battling with food. It's a huge relief and frees me up to do so much more. I wish I knew this feeling when I was younger instead of being enslaved by obsessive thoughts of what I would eat next.
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on January 05, 2018:
Been there, done that, and it is a serious struggle for decades. Your article is honest, helpful, and should be required reading for future parents.