How to Help Your Overweight Child: 6 Do's and Dont's From a Former Fat Kid
Did you know the Centers for Disease Control reports that 1 in 5 children in the United States is obese? Did you know that's tripled since the 1980's?
Did you know that childhood obesity has been called “one of the most stigmatizing and least socially acceptable conditions in childhood” by health care professionals?
- Did you know that overweight children 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?
- Did you know that overweight kids are more likely to suffer from low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and poor academic performance and report a lower quality of life?
Being an Overweight Child Is a Family Problem, Not a Kid Problem
If you were a fat kid like I was, you know from firsthand experience its devastating effects. No matter how thin you become as an adult, the emotional scars from being an overweight child stay with you forever. It's no wonder parents want to help their overweight youngsters and prevent their suffering, but they must tread lightly or they could make it a lot worse. When they see the 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 a workable solution that helps everyone get fit and healthy, both physically and emotionally.
6 Do's and Don'ts to Help an Overweight Child
1. Do Realize That a Large and Sudden Weight Gain Can Be a Symptom of 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 but, in reality, the weight gain was a result of my deep and unexplained sadness. 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, rarely talked of it, and perceived it as a stigma. At that time, my mom and dad never would have considered it as a factor in my weight gain. Therefore, they sent me off to weekly Weight Watcher meetings rather than where I needed to go: straight to the doctor!
Today, though, most parents are keenly aware that teenagers and even children can suffer from clinical depression. They know that the depressed can't just "snap out of it" as we once believed but require medical intervention. Signs 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
To prevent weight gain, parents should take their youngsters for annual medical check-ups. If my parents had done this, the pediatrician would have sounded an alarm before I had gained 40 pounds and faced an almost insurmountable battle to lose it.
2. Don't Become Your Child's Diet and Exercise Coach
Parents head down the wrong road when they start nitpicking their children's appearance, criticizing their weight, 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 the 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 love 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 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, creating a power struggle between adult and child. Words of advice coming from a professional—a doctor, nutritionist, life coach, counselor, or exercise instructor—and not a parent are far more powerful, impactful, and less hurtful.
It's never too early to get children thinking about how emotions affect their eating.
3. Do Let Your Child Knows She's Not Alone in Her 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. While this trait was highly beneficial hundreds of years ago when food was scarce and humans were actively searching for it, it's not today when we're surrounded by tempting treats and lead sedentary lifestyles in front of screens.
Youngsters need to know the truth about their genetics and 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. My parents said my weight gain was caused by a lack of willpower, making me feel weak and ashamed. While both of them were fat, they never talked to me about their weight struggles so I felt very much alone. When I got older, I resented their hypocrisy about me losing weight when they were unwilling to do it themselves.
Nothing helps a child lose weight 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 child:
- 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 whole grains.
4. Don't Treat Exercise Like a Chore
My mother hated exercise of any kind and wasn't shy about making her aversion known. Her idea of fun and relaxation was watching television and going out to eat. It wasn't until I was an adult that I discovered how fantastic moving my body made me feel and how it was key to warding off depression. Now I see it as something kind I do for myself and I love it. But, I regret not having that mindset as a kid.
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 to be good role models—leading family hikes, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, walking instead of driving, and making movement a joyous part of the day through yoga, biking, skating, and dancing. The goal of exercise and sports isn't to be the best—to become an über athlete training for the Olympics—but to enjoy it.
Mark MacDonald, a health expert and author of Body Confidence, says moms and dads 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. Do Acknowledge the Role You Played in Her Weight Gain
Acknowledging your failures as a parent goes a long way in helping your overweight child. She didn't get that way by herself, and she needs you to accept some responsibility. In order to lose the pounds and keep them off, she needs everyone in the household to make major changes. Otherwise, she'll feel it's her battle alone, get frustrated, and feel unsupported. Even if other family members aren't battling the budge, they benefit from moving more and eating healthier foods. I have two siblings who were always thin as kids, but a sedentary lifestyle and a diet of junk food caught up with them in midlife. They struggle mightily now because good habits weren't instilled in them when they were young.
When I was growing up, we came home from school and watched television until it was time for bed. My mother allowed this because it was easier than setting up play dates, driving us to sports teams, or ordering us outside to play. We sat like zombies in front of the boob tube, ate snacks, and did our homework.
Today, there are even more entertainment options that keep kids inside and sedentary. Matt Young, an expert on physical literacy, says children today spend an average of 7.4 hours a day on screens: computers, TV's, Smartphones, and video games. He urges moms and dads to get kids outside to pursue a wide-range of games, sports, and activities. He says too many kids specialize in only one sport such as soccer, tennis, or baseball. Then, when they become teens, they drop out of it because they get burned out or injured.
6. Don't Forget Your Number One Job as a Parent: Love Your Child Unconditionally
Like many others, I ultimately discovered my depression and weight gain as a teen was caused by feeling unloved at home. I suffered from what Dr. Margo Maine calls “father hunger,” an emptiness caused by my dad who was physically there but emotionally checked out. When I was growing up, he was a remote presence in our house—always in a sour mood, angry at life, disappointed in the hand dealt to him. I wanted his affection and affirmation, but it never came.
To fill that empty ache, I ate in 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 those pages and knew I had to start filling up the hole in my heart with things other than food. I had to face those feelings of sadness that I had regarding my dad's rejection and understand they were all about him and not about me being unlovable. In spirituality, it's said that we're done with something when it doesn't affect us any more. I knew that I was done using food as a way to fill me up emotionally when I forgave my father and started to love myself.
This video explains how we should combat childhood obesity at home, at school, and in society by teaching physical literacy.
This Book Helped Me Understand How My Distant Dad Triggered My Overeating
We live in a world that tells us daughters should be the apple of their dad's eye, his little princess, his precious little girl. That makes it all the more isolating and hurtful when our own father-daughter relationship doesn't mirror that ideal. Whether our dad abandoned us or remained in the house but was emotionally remote, it's devastating to us as kids and overeating is one way we deal with the hurt. I did that throughout my teen years and early 20's. This life-changing book helped me understand my behavior and change it after trying unsuccessfully for years. I wasn't a loser who just lacked self-control; I was a wounded child who needed healing.
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.
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© 2018 McKenna Meyers