How to Help Your Child Lose Weight: Advice From a Former Fat Kid

Updated on December 1, 2019
letstalkabouteduc profile image

When she was a fat teenager, the author's parents sent her to Weight Watchers. Her obesity, though, was caused by depression.

Parents of obese kids need to recognize their role in creating the problem.
Parents of obese kids need to recognize their role in creating the problem. | Source
  • 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 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?
  • Did you know that 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 stay 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 Do's and Don'ts for Helping 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. 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. Don't Become Your Child's 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.

It's never too early to get children thinking about how emotions affect their eating.

3. Do Let Your Child 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 child:

  1. Have dinner together with no screens, focusing on mindful eating and making conversation.
  2. Cut way back on processed foods and sugary snacks.
  3. Prepare meals at home so you can control ingredients and portions. Avoid fast-food restaurants.
  4. Always have healthy snacks on hand: carrot sticks, apples, bananas, yogurt, whole grain crackers and pretzels, rice cakes, popcorn, and trail mix.
  5. Talk about healthy eating, not dieting.
  6. Drink water instead of soda, sports drinks, and juice.
  7. Have breakfast. Kids who eat in the morning are less likely to become obese.
  8. Cut back on fat content.
  9. Read food labels with your kids.
  10. Eat whole foods: fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and grains.

4. Don't Treat Exercise Like a Chore

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. The 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.

Being on a sports team is not for every child, but every child needs to be active. Studies show it not only helps them maintain a proper weight but improves academic performance
Being on a sports team is not for every child, but every child needs to be active. Studies show it not only helps them maintain a proper weight but improves academic performance | Source

5. Do Acknowledge the Role That You Played in Your Child's 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 burn out or injury). Then they don't have another one to fall back on and become inactive.

6. Don't Forget Your Number One Job as a Parent: Love Your Child 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?

What is the biggest mistake parents make when helping their kids lose weight?

See results

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


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    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      10 months ago

      You're welcome, Tam. I'm glad you were open to the message. Your daughter is lucky to have you.

    • profile image


      10 months ago

      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.

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      2 years ago

      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.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      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.


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