Seeing the soul behind the size: How to talk with kids about their weight

Talking with kids about their weight can feel like walking a tightrope. You need them to know your concerns without leaving them feeling dejected or alone. Keep these tips in mind while having the weight discussion to avoid a hurtful lecture.

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  • “You’ve had enough Jennie,” was an all too familiar saying at my house when I was a kid. Weight is a touchy subject for adults so you can imagine how difficult it is for children to swallow the “weight talk.” Now that I’m a parent I know talking with children about their weight can feel like walking a tightrope. You need them to know your concerns without leaving them feeling dejected or alone. Keep these tips in mind while having the weight discussion.

  • Choose the right setting

  • No one likes to be publicly rebuffed so keep comments about how much a child is eating — or not eating — to yourself and wait for an appropriate time. I like to have soulful discussions with my kids just before bed when we’re one-on-one. It's a good time to talk since they are normally anxious to stay up late. In this setting, they tend to be forthcoming with their opinions.

  • Don’t make this about you

  • As parents, we never want our children to make the same mistakes we did. However, projecting our body image fears onto children with weight issues places unfair pressure on them. Avoid sentences like "I just don't want people to make fun of you ...” Yet, do ask “How do you feel about your body?” Listen to their stories with compassion. Don’t be shocked by what you hear.

  • Emphasize health

  • Instead of taking on the tone of a lecture, make your conversation a discussion about overall health and well-being. Touch on different aspects of human body needs including knowledge, exercise, rest, nutrition and grooming. Ask them what they like and don’t like about food and exercise. Make a list of things they enjoy. Then, refer to this list when in a health rut. Emphasize that in health, as in all things, moderation is the key.

  • Take responsibility

  • Take responsibility for your example — healthy or otherwise. Commit to making needed changes and encourage them to do the same. As the German poet Goethe put it, "Correction does much. Encouragement does more."

  • Give them tools

  • Providing words to express feelings about weight can lighten a child’s burden. Phrases such as, “I am not my weight,” “I am a strong girl,” and “I am full of good things,” will help children cope with feelings of inadequacy. Fitness expert and creator of the P90X workout, Tony Horton, reminds us, “Do your best and forget the rest!”

  • Liz, a mother of six — two of whom struggle with weight issues, suggests helping children identify how they’re feeling before taking a bite. Encourage them to ask themselves, “Am I eating because I’m hungry, or, am I just bored, tired, anxious or feeling vulnerable?” You could also ask, “Am I not eating because I’m trying to control something?”

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  • Once you’ve laid the foundation for health, watch for improvement. If it’s stagnant you may need to consider factors such as depression, anxiety, or abuse as a cause for their eating irregularities. Don’t be afraid to seek professional help if needed.

  • See the soul behind the size

  • Children who are under-sized or overweight usually know it. They are all too familiar with phrases like “string bean” or “bubble bum.” Express your love by letting them know they are not a number on a scale. They are worth so much more than that. This could be the single greatest gift you give to a child struggling with a weight problem. They need to know that you see the soul behind their size. You are there to help them see that.

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Jen Savage is the COO of her household. She loves life in Arizona.

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