Have you ever been in a situation where you witnessed a parent doing or saying something to a child that you felt was wrong? Did you say something, or did you bite your tongue? Sometimes, don’t you just want to say “are you kidding me? You did not just say that. Do you not realize how stupid that is???” Well, I have felt that way, many, many times when I worked almost exclusively with “obese” children and teenagers as an outpatient dietitian. I felt like saying not-nice things to parents, siblings. and even other health care professionals (such as the pediatricians who referred them). I just could not believe the stupidity (not a nice word, and I never use it, however it is how I felt at the time). But, it is not stupidity at all as most of the people and a majority of the parents I worked with were very intelligent. Really smart. But when it came to how they treated their children, or how they treated their patients, well, they just were not wise. Not wise at all. And it truly broke my heart…..I wanted to scream, but I couldn’t because, well, I would have lost my job and then I could never help anyone at all.
This is a topic I am passionate about, and I already vented a bit in 5 Things You Should Never Do if your doctor tells you your child is overweight. But I want to take it a step further. I think it was something I saw in a little girl’s face that touched something in me last week, and I can’t forget it. I was leaving the Nutrition Office where I am temporarily covering an afternoon here and there, and as I was walking out at the end of the day I noticed a little girl sitting in the waiting area. She was with her mom, kind of clung to her, waiting to see the dietitian. She was probably 6 or 7 years old and was likely starting the weight management group program (or maybe was already going and just coming for a follow up, I don’t know….but from the look on her face, she looked as if she was on death row). Just to be clear, this “weight management program” does NOT focus on losing weight for children. It is expertly organized and run under the guidance of a very experienced, sensitive and wise psychologist. The focus is on the family as a whole with an emphasis on everyone improving their lifestyle to get healthier. The name of the program has absolutely nothing to do with weight, which is a good thing. The problem is what happens when the child goes home.
Just as with picky eaters, parents of “overweight”or “obese” or “chubby” or “fat” kids (however they are labeled by family, friends, doctors) tend to get treated in an “old-school” way of thinking. For picky eaters, for instance, we learned way back when to make a child “clean your plate”, or “finish those peas” or you won’t get dessert. Just because parents have been doing that for decades does not mean it works or is the right thing to do. We now know this promotes even pickier eating, kids growing up to be adults obsessed with sweets (because when you are 32 you can skip the darn peas and go straight to the dessert). It doesn’t work.
The same holds true for children and weight. The minute the child gets wind that a parent is concerned about his weight or body size, things change. The first mention of “do you really need that?” starts the ball rolling. Sometimes parents start making comments like this after a yearly check up when the pediatrician may mention something about BMI. Sometimes it is just the parent noticing a change in their child’s body. Often times, I have encountered parents, usually those with body image concerns of their own who are the worst offenders. They “don’t want their child to go through what I did” so they are going to make them skinny NOW. Or upper class, professional parents where it is important to portray a certain image, and having a larger size child or teenager does not reflect well on them. Everything needs to be perfect, including everyone’s bodies. I know this sounds crazy, but trust me, I have seen it. These cases especially trigger me and I have to use all of my personal resources regarding counseling skills and self-control to avoid saying something I will regret. What I want to say is “don’t you see how your failure to accept your kid for who they are is affecting their self-esteem? How can you be so shallow?” But I don’t because the reality is these are all good, loving parents who care about their kids. They are doing the best they can. Their intentions are good. The repercussions are really bad though, so I need to say something.
Not everyone accepts what I have to say. I usually try to focus on the research regarding restricting children, or even what happens when adults diet. This almost always leads to more focus on food, binge eating, eating disorders and yes, weight gain. When I ask if they notice any sneaking of food, inevitably the parent says yes. It starts when the child is restricted. So that often opens the door to the parent considering a different approach, such as focusing on health for the entire family. But it still is not easy for parents to change. They truly do want to help their kids, but it is complicated because of the parent’s relationship with food, their own body image concerns and dieting history, their beliefs about weight and healthy, their values, etc.
So what is my plea to parents? First ask yourself these questions:
- Do you feel that your child’s body size reflects on you as a parent?
- Do you feel you are a failure or did something wrong because your child does not have a thin body like their friends?
- Do you make comments about your body, your children’s bodies, other people’s bodies?
- Do you weigh your child EVER at home? Do you talk about that number?
- Do you allow anyone in your home to talk about another’s weight or body?
- Have you changed your behavior toward your child’s eating after a pediatrician visit where you were told something about weight?
- Do you forbid one child from eating certain foods but allow others in the home to have it? Do you limit portion sizes for just one child and not others?
- Do you force your child or teenager to use a treadmill, exercise bike or other forms of exercise to help them lose weight even if they do not enjoy it?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, my guess is your child or teenager is getting a few messages from you that may harm them, either now or in the future. The messages are:
- I am not ok the way I am.
- My body size is important in life. That number on the scale defines me.
- I should feel bad if I eat certain foods.
- Exercise is not fun.
- If I lose weight my parents will be happy.
Are these the beliefs you want your kid to carry with them on to their adult lives? Do you carry these beliefs as an adult? How has it worked for YOU?
What is the alternative? It is never too late to create a shift to a healthier relationship with food, eating and weight. You CAN help your children grow up to be the best they can be in every way including body size. You just need to accept the fact that we have absolutely no control on what are bodies want to be (that is in our genes). You can however work on your family’s lifestyle to promote health. You can work hard to accept the goal of feeling good and being healthy instead. Now that is a pretty good message to send to your kids I think. How do you do that? Here is a way to start:
- Throw away your scale. Vow to focus on promoting healthy behaviors and not the force of gravity on your body.
- Treat every single person who lives in your home the same when it comes to food.
- Talk about health, not weight or bodies.
- Defend your child. Do not allow anyone at anytime in any place to talk about your child’s body. That means siblings, dad, mom, aunts, uncles, grandma and grandpa.It also includes the doctor. Warn them ahead of time. Tell them you do not want to draw attention to weight. Assure them you are educating yourself about healthy eating and exercise (you can actually ask for a referral to a Registered Dietitian for help with healthy eating, but be sure the dietitian also knows you do not want to focus on weight, just health). Remember, your pediatrician is trained to look at numbers such as BMI and is obligated to diagnose “obesity” however they do not need to talk about it, especially in front of a child.
- Do not give your child a “look” when they are eating something, or taking a second helping. They will sense your judgement and it will hurt them. Remember, if you are offering healthy meals and opportunities for fun movement, your child will be fine. They need to learn to listen to their own bodies, and when the emphasis is not on restricting and controlling every morsel they eat, eventually they become less focused on food and eating. All kids are different and it depends on what they have already gone through, as well as their own genetic and psychological make-up. Your job is to set an example of a healthy lifestyle, that is how your children will know what matters. If they see you jumping on a scale every day followed by a reaction from you depending on that number, they learn that is what matters.
- Get help. If this is really hard for you for whatever reason, consider getting some support. If you have eating issues of your own, or if you are stuck in a diet mentality, or are afraid of getting rid of your scale don’t give up. I have worked with many women with eating disorders who fear they will somehow pass on their issues to their children. Just their awareness of their own issues really helps.
So my plea in a nutshell is, please let go of it. Let go of our culture’s focus on body size. Let go of thinking you and your entire family have to look a certain way, otherwise you are not a good parent. Instead, embrace caring about health. This does not mean eating perfectly or exercising a certain amount of time every day. It means moving in a direction that feels good and makes sense. If you could have seen that little girl’s face in the waiting room that day, you would understand. Please don’t do that to your child.