child pinching their tummy: what parents can do to help their overweight child

How do you talk to your child about their weight without damaging their self esteem? Psychologist Jennifer Garth looks at the role parents play in their child’s weight management.

Perhaps your couch-potato son is developing a spare tyre. Your teenage daughter won’t eat her school lunch, yet devours junk food when she gets home. She, too, is starting to look more than a little overweight.

How to talk to your children about their weight

So why aren’t you doing anything about it? Is it because you don’t want to upset them, to deprive them of their treats, or damage their self-esteem? Or worse, perhaps you’re concerned you’ll set your daughter up for an eating disorder if you broach the subject.

Or maybe you’re just hoping they will grow out of their puppy fat and into their healthy weight range. Unfortunately, that rarely happens. In fact, the older and more overweight a child or adolescent, the more likely their weight problems will persist into adulthood – with all the associated health risks.

how parents can help an overweight child: sweets

Problem: ‘Food is used as a reward at our house’

Let’s face it, kids are already bombarded with enough eating triggers at school, at the grocery store and on television. It begs the question, do they really need another cue to eat?

“You don’t need to reward your child with a packet of sweets,” says psychologist Sarah McMahon, “when there are so many other ways to reward good behaviour.” For example, if your child is young, you could use a magnetic chart to acknowledge good behaviour, with rewards being toys, or pocket money – rather than food. Put the chart in a prominent place like on the refrigerator door.

For teens, rewards can be game and/or movie rentals, extra pocket money, having friends over or a trip to a theme park. “A great incentive for kids is quality time with their parents,” says McMahon. “Kids love to spend a day in the park, or a weekend away with the family.”

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Problem: ‘In our family, being overweight is genetic. Why even try to lose weight?’

Research shows that if both parents are overweight or obese, their child’s risk of developing a weight problem is increased. But that’s no reason to throw in the towel. Instead, exercise more and eat less, say the experts. In fact, this situation is all the more reason for you to focus on modifying what is in your control – your child’s environment.

Make it easy for your child to lose weight. Start by replacing unhealthy foods, particularly packets of chips, biscuits, sweets, ice-cream and chocolates, with healthy foods. Next, reduce serving sizes. Make sure your child sticks to three nutritious meals and two healthy snacks a day with an emphasis on healthy choices.

Think about adding more vegetables to meals, reducing energy-dense foods, such as takeaways and soft drinks, and making treats the exception rather than the norm. Also, eating as a family at the dinner table is a good idea.

Encourage your child to join organised activities such as swimming lessons, scouts and/or sporting clubs. As a family, go on regular walks or bike rides on the weekends.

Problem: ‘My kids are screen addicts. It’s impossible to get them exercising!’

Research shows that 90% of teens with smart phones send and receive text messages daily. Half send 50 or more a day. One in three send 100. Let’s face it, Facebook, socialising via computer games, text messaging and Twitter are a teen’s life. Throw a lack of exercise into the equation and it’s no surprise your teen’s weight is going up as fast as their profile views.

The answer is not to ban online games, or social networking, but to enforce rules that limit the amount of time your child or teen can spend online. An hour a night playing online games, or socialising on Facebook isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it can give your teen time to let off steam and have a much-needed break from studying.

Encourage your teen to have a social life outside of their bedroom. Support activities such as swimming, tennis, running, soccer, bushwalking or joining a sports team. Plenty of face-to-face interactions with their peers and being active at the same time build confidence and valuable social skills.

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Problem: ‘My daughter likes her food & has put on weight, but I don’t want her dieting.’

Every parent wants their child to have a healthy appetite, but too much of a good thing can cause weight gain and lead to obesity. The key is not to nag your child to eat less. It will only make her defensive and result in behaviour you don’t want.

“Encourage her to get in touch with her body’s signals of hunger and fullness,” says McMahon. At dinner, make comments like, “I’m full. How about you?’ If everyone has had enough, let’s clear the table of leftovers.”

If your daughter keeps going back for seconds and thirds, something else could be bothering her. Ask, ‘Are you bored? Stressed? If she’s bored, direct her to her interests and friends. If she’s stressed, talk about it. It’s a great opportunity to teach your child positive problem-solving skills.

what can parents do to help an overweight child: young girl looks in mirror

Problem: “I would have to change, too.”

According to research, the most successful weight loss programmes for kids are when the whole family comes on board. Because your overweight child isn’t singled out as the one with the problem and in need of a special diet and exercise plan, her self-esteem remains intact. As a parent, you’re a role model. It can be a big call, especially if you have a history of failing to get your weight under control. You may feel pessimistic, helpless and preoccupied with thoughts of, ‘What’s the point in trying?

Set a new standard for your kids, and yourself, by choosing to have positive expectations, and encourage them to do the same. Start by turning off your inner critic. Let go of negative thinking by challenging thoughts of failure with the facts.

For example, if your inner dialogue is, ‘I can’t change. I’ve tried before but I always fail’, replace it with a reality check such as, ‘If I focus on eating healthy food and don’t try to change too much too soon, in good time we will become a healthy family.’

Promote positive thinking and behaviour in your child, too – praise them when they make healthy eating and lifestyle choices.

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Problem: “My daughter is overweight, but I don’t want her developing a negative body image.”

If you have raised a daughter with good self-esteem, congratulations! But avoiding the topic of being overweight is putting her at risk of growing into an unhealthy adult. “It’s how you broach the ‘weight-loss’ subject that determines the effect it will have on a teen’s self-esteem,” says McMahon. “If you tell your daughter she’s fat and needs to lose weight, of course, you’re going to undermine her.

Instead, educate your teen about healthy eating and lifestyle choices and how health is related to many more positive outcomes than weight, such as longevity, increased energy levels, feeling less breathless. Your daughter will develop a mind-body connection, linking what she eats with how she feels, guiding her in future food and lifestyle choices.”

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