Worrying about our children can make us feel extremely helpless and frustrated. If you are worrying about your child’s weight, it’s natural to want to intervene. This is particularly true when a child is hurting — perhaps due to teasing or bullying or if they feel they can’t do all the things they want to do.
What many of us have done for years, and usually with the very best of intentions, is to sit down with our kids, share our concerns, and offer solutions. Our solutions usually involved things like cutting back on calories by buying light bread, prohibiting eating after dinner, or starting to exercise nightly together.
We’d talk about how great we would feel when we could buy a smaller size; we would celebrate even the smallest successes: a couple pounds lost or going a whole week without chocolate!
When our efforts didn’t pan out and the weight remained, or if our kids stopped following the plan, we might get frustrated, and maybe even more concerned.
Unfortunately, we were wrong
The American Academy of Pediatrics very recently released recommendations outlining that we’ve actually been getting it all wrong. These recent guidelines are geared toward doctors specifically, but hold a key message for caregivers as well, warning us about what most of us in the eating disorder field have been saying for years:
… talking about weight and dieting with kids is a very bad idea.
Now, I’m not saying that eating disorder clinicians have always gotten it all right, but we have known for a while that focusing on a child’s or adolescent’s weight tends to lead to problems.
For kids who are vulnerable to developing eating disorders, dieting and weight-talk can be a trigger point for engaging in unhealthy eating behaviors that can lead to a full disorder.
But even for kids who may not be vulnerable to an eating disorder, weight-talk and dieting are a slippery slope of self-loathing and poor health habits. When we focus on weight, we’re placing our attention squarely on something that a.) isn’t a good indicator of health in and of itself and b.) may not be safely within their control. Unfortunately, many of our prevention efforts have focused on just that. But:
… our fear-mongering about obesity is actually contributing to weight gain and eating disorders.
We have developed a cultural paranoia about weight. As the societal spotlight has been shown more brightly on the topic of obesity, the fear of becoming or staying obese has intensified.
The vast majority of pre-teen girls cite “getting fat” as their biggest fear – bigger than having cancer or losing their parents.
Consider that one of the core symptoms of anorexia nervosa is an intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat. For kids of a higher body weight, this focus on obesity as a public health crisis that must be stopped communicates this: “Your body is diseased. It’s not okay, and we have to lower your weight.”
A recipe for disaster
We must ask ourselves: has focusing on weight as the “problem” helped? The incidence of overweight and obesity have continued to climb year over year since 1999. So our efforts, however well-intentioned, have not been effective. What are we, as parents, to do? We’re concerned about our kids, fearful of what’s ahead for them, and yet we do not want to do any harm.
Parents, I understand your concerns. You want to know what to do instead. Here are a few places to start:
- Ask yourself: do your feelings about your child’s weight belong to him or you? Many parents have struggled with their own weight challenges throughout their lives and much of their anxiety is rooted in wanting their child to avoid that same struggle. Many of us carry our own weight stigma. While it’s understandable, it’s important to recognize when we’re projecting our own “stuff” onto our child.
- Talk to your child’s doctor. Is he or she concerned about their health? If they have concerns about certain health issues, ask the doc to help you focus on those. What might they suggest for you to help your child improve their health (not go on a diet)?
- Remember that weight-related teasing or bullying is not your child’s fault. It’s the fault of the bully and the culture that breeds the stigma. Many of us want our child to change so they can avoid the pain. But if they had another uniqueness or medical issue that was being picked on, would we still be focusing on them?
- Implement family meals. This is one of the few evidence-based strategies for both obesity and eating disorder prevention. Researchers aren’t even totally sure why, but sharing family meals (at least three times per week) fosters connection and ultimately a healthier relationship with food.
- Watch for signs of eating disorders, like your child eating secretively, unexpected weight changes, large amounts of food going missing, or skipping family meals. If you suspect that there might be a problem, start the conversation and seek out resources for support.
The AAP’s new recommendations have been a long time coming, but now that we know better, we can do better. We can build a culture where kids learn that weight itself is not the problem, dieting is not the solution, and we all deserve respect and dignity.
Ashley Solomon, PsyD, CEDS is Executive Director at Eating Recovery Center, Ohio.