How to Help an Overweight Child: 6 Dos and Don'ts for Concerned Moms and Dads

Updated on January 11, 2018
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As a teenager, McKenna had a sudden and dramatic weight gain, causing her great shame and sadness. Now she shares what she learned.

When I taught kindergarten at an inner-city school, I was shocked and saddened by the number of kids who were obese. It brought back heartbreaking memories from my teen years when I became depressed and started putting on pounds. That was a devastating time in my life as I felt ashamed and alone, not knowing what was happening to my mind and my body. Unfortunately, my mom and dad—like many other parents—didn't know what to do about my weight gain (and my depression) and made mistakes that made my situation even worse.

More Children and Teens Are Being Diagnosed With Depression, Anxiety, and Obsesity

Children who gain weight may be depressed. Diet and exercise alone won't solve the problem.
Children who gain weight may be depressed. Diet and exercise alone won't solve the problem. | Source

Today, childhood obesity is a major health crisis as kids face problems that were once reserved for adults: diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. They suffer from the psychological toll as well from fat shaming, online bullying, and feeling unattractive in a world of selfies. As I well know, being fat as a child stays with you well into adulthood even when you lose the weight. You're less confident, less trusting, and always uneasy with food. So what should concerned moms and dads do when their youngster starts to pile on the pounds? Here are 6 do's and don'ts when parenting an overweight child:

1. Do Realize That a Significant Weight Gain Is Most Likely a Symptom of a Bigger Problem.

When I started piling on the pounds as a teenager, my parents were busy with their careers and three other kids. They didn't pay attention until I had packed on 40 pounds to my 5 foot, 2 inch frame and could no longer fit into any of my clothes. Then, once they took notice, they only focused on it as a weight issue and and only saw one solution: eating less.

My sudden and dramatic weight gain, however, was a symptom of a bigger problem—clinical depression— that had begun with my first menstrual cycle. According to a study in the American Journal of Public Health, kids who suffer from depression are more likely to gain weight. If my parents had taken me to a pediatrician when I began isolating from friends and was no longer participating in my favorite activities, they could have saved me from so much misery. Instead, my profound sadness manifested itself in weight gain, a lack of energy, and a sedentary lifestyle. My mom and dad always assumed I was depressed because of my weight gain but, in reality, my weight was a response to my depression.

2. Don't Become Your Child's Diet and Exercise Coach. Consult a Professional.

Parents head down the wrong road when they start nitpicking their child's appearance, criticizing her weight, monitoring her caloric intake, and pushing her to exercise. The more parents urge their child to lose weight— making it the center of their relationship— the more the child resents it and resists. Kids want unconditional love from mom and dad—something they don't get from the rest of the world that judges so harshly.

Youngsters don't take kindly to nagging, especially when they're teens. While moms and dads think they're acting responsibly and showing concern, all the child hears is: I'm no good. They don't love me. They're ashamed of me. Words of advice coming from of a professional—a doctor, nutritionist, life coach, counselor, or exercise instructor —are far more powerful and less hurtful than those from a parent.

3. Acknowledge the Genetic Component of Obesity.

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.

Kids Need to Experience Exercise as a Joyous Activity, Not a Chore

Being on a sport 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 sport 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

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 only 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. We all have enough things we must accomplish on our “to do” lists each day. Exercise shouldn't be just another one so keep it light and fun.

5. Do Acknowledge the Role You Played in Her Weight Gain.

Acknowledging your failures as a parent goes a long way to help 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, too, from moving more and eating less. 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. Unfortunately, many kids today not only watch TV but play video games, chat on their cell phones, and spend time on their computers. Parents need to stay on top of it to get their kids moving, spending time outside, and stepping away from their screens.

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 Book Helped Me Understand How My Distant Dad Triggered My Overeating

Father Hunger: Fathers, Daughters, and the Pursuit of Thinness
Father Hunger: Fathers, Daughters, and the Pursuit of Thinness

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.

 

© 2018 McKenna Meyers

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    • letstalkabouteduc profile image
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      McKenna Meyers 2 weeks ago from Bend, OR

      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 weeks 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.