How to talk to your child about weight
Parents have a lot of hard conversations with their children. They provide the facts and answer questions about complex topics such as drugs, alcohol, sex and puberty.
But when it comes to navigating the delicate topic of weight, the discussion may feel more daunting. Talking about your child’s weight is often tied to their self-image — and it’s no secret that nourishing a positive self-image in children and teens can be tricky.
Talking to your children about weight has become increasingly important. Over the past 30 years, obesity has doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the United States. Chances are your child or teen has thought about their weight — whether they’re comparing themselves to what they see on television and social media or witnessing how their peers treat people who are overweight.
It may be only a matter of time until your child approaches you with questions or concerns about their weight. Or your child’s primary care provider may introduce the topic if there’s concern about your child’s body mass index (BMI), which measures weight in relation to height. Either way, it’s a good idea to be prepared for a discussion about weight.
If you think a conversation about weight is in the near future — or just want to be prepared — keep these tips in mind:
Create a safe space
It’s critical for kids to know they have someone who will listen without judgment. Establishing an environment where they feel comfortable sharing helps with any discussion.
It’s likely harder for your child to talk about weight than it is for you. They may already be experiencing negative messaging and bullying related to weight. Ask open questions that encourage your child to share, such as:
- Is anything bothering you?
- How are things going at school?
- How do you feel about your weight?
Listen closely and thank your child for trusting you with their feelings. Let them know they aren’t alone if they think about their weight — everybody, including their parents – thinks about their weight at some point.
Children and teens often hear more negative than positive messaging about weight. A positive approach can put your child at ease and open to discussion.
Remind your child that the number on the scale is not who they are — it’s simply a physical challenge they need to address. When talking about weight, use person-first language, such as “people who live with weight issues” instead of “overweight people.” Avoid all negative comments about people’s bodies — even your own.
If your child says something negative about their body, try to find out what’s behind it by asking:
- Why do you feel that way?
- Did someone say something about that to you?
You may find that your child’s weight concerns have less to do with their actual weight and more with bullying. If that’s the case, you’ll need to address the situation differently.
Focus on improving their health, not how they look
It’s natural for kids to associate weight with looks. They don’t yet realize that weight is more about having a healthy body and less about how that body looks.
To put it into perspective, explain that carrying extra weight means the body must work harder — and that extra work can keep a person from feeling their best. Point out the benefits of exercise and a healthy diet for both weight and increased energy, good mental health and healthy skin.
Make a plan to get healthier
Once your child is ready to make healthy lifestyle changes, work together to develop some “get healthier” strategies. Keep the goals small and detailed so your child will succeed. For example, if your child enjoys dessert, don’t just take it away or suggest “eating a healthy dessert” (which can be too vague). Instead, plan to eat fruit for dessert.
Other strategies to consider:
- Choosing a new sport to try can increase physical activity.
- Having meals as a family helps kids control portions and engage in conversation while eating.
- Planning weekly outdoor activities for the family gets your child moving and limits screen time.
- Picking out healthy foods and recipes together keeps your child interested and invested in the foods they eat.
- Setting meal and snack times reduces the time your child may be “grazing.”
Consult the pediatrician about your child’s weight
Your child may feel most comfortable discussing their weight (and feelings) with you. But that doesn’t mean your child’s pediatrician shouldn’t be involved.
One of the biggest challenges in talking about a child’s weight is knowing what’s “normal” for their age, sex and size. Engage the pediatrician to understand if there is cause for concern. They can also provide healthy lifestyle suggestions and connect you to other resources, such as nutritionists or mental health professionals.