Helping Your Overweight Child

Recently, a mom wrote to me regarding her overweight daughter. The following article addresses different ways to deal with the issue while preserving your relationship with your child and your child’s self esteem:

Dear Heather,

My 9 year old daughter has recently put on a lot of weight. Her clothes don’t fit properly and I’m concerned about her health, and about her getting teased or bullied at school. Whenever I bring up the issue of her weight with her, she just gets defensive and tells me she’s fine and I should leave her alone. What can I do to help my child?

Over the past 30 years, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents. 18% of children in the United States are obese. You are not alone.

Your daughter is at an age where you can no longer control what she puts in her mouth. Chances are she can find opportunities to sneak food and eat things she shouldn’t when you are not around. She can trade her apples for a friend’s potato chips at school. She can bring money to school to spend at the candy machine. She can eat 2 slices of cake at her friend’s birthday party. Therefore, it becomes imperative that you do everything you can to positively influence your daughter’s eating habits. Re-evaluate the way you feed your family. Make sure that you send your daughter with a healthy lunch, or that her school’s lunch program has healthy options. Eliminate fast food completely. Make sure the meals you serve are a balanced mix of protein, carbs and vegetables. Go through your kitchen and toss the junk food or greatly reduce it. Model good eating habits in front of your daughter and save your late night snacking for when she is in bed. If you cannot eliminate all sweets or nosh in your home, put it out of sight and not in a place that is easily accessible. Make sure that fresh fruits and vegetables are in view and easily accessible at all times. Limit the time your daughter spends watching TV and using the computer or other electronics. Encourage exercise and build in time for aerobic activity on the weekends. If you don’t exercise, start exercising. Set an example for your daughter to follow and model the behaviors you want to see your daughter adapt. You can do all of this without uttering a word to your daughter about her weight. The changes you make will speak volumes. Does all of this seem like too much work and effort? How badly do you want your daughter to lose weight? You can’t expect her to make changes you aren’t willing to make yourself.

Another important factor to keep in mind is that overweight children usually suffer from low self esteem. It can become a chicken and egg question: Did my child suffer from low self esteem and turn to food to alleviate her emotional distress, or, did she begin putting on weight which caused her self esteem to suffer? Either way, your priority must become to build up her self esteem. This can be accomplished by giving her lots of praise and compliments in areas that don’t involve her weight, looks or clothing. Help her develop a value system that isn’t based on her appearance. Compliment her grades in school. Tell her she’s smart. Praise the way she is so kind to her friend. Tell her she is a good person. Laugh at her jokes. Catch her doing things right and acknowledge them (“Thank you for putting your dirty laundry in the hamper, I love how you are helping me keep the house neat.”) Applaud how she is so gentle with, and takes such good care of the dog. Put complements and praise of your daughter on your daily radar and make sure you do it multiple times a day. While this is good advice for any parent, it is imperative for parents of children with low self esteem.

Pay close attention to what is going on in your daughter’s life. Have there been any recent stressors that could be causing her to overeat? A divorce, a new marriage, a new baby, a move or a school change? Is it midterm or finals time? Is she struggling with a teacher, her friendships or doing poorly in any classes? Instead of trying to talk to your daughter about her weight, initiate a conversation with her about what might be upsetting her. (e.g.  “Moving to a new neighborhood can be tough. Is there anything I can do to make the transition easier for you?” or, “I noticed that sometimes you come home from school looking stressed. Is anything upsetting you?”) Make time to talk to your daughter about how she’s managing and feeling. It’s also important to mention here that there is a strong correlation between obesity and sexual molestation. Consider gently broaching this topic with your daughter within the framework of giving her general safety guidelines. For more information about how to talk to your child about safety, click here.

Also consider your daughter’s genetics. Are you or her father overweight? Are there other overweight family members? A child with one overweight parent is twice as likely to become an overweight adult and a child with 2 overweight parents is 2.5 times more likely. Your daughter’s age is a factor as well. At 9 years old she is on the verge of puberty. It is common for pre-adolescents to gain more than a little weight as their bodies gear up for all the changes ahead, and then slim down again as teens.

Lastly, if you feel you must have a conversation with your daughter, do so in the context of your concern for her health.

Do not mention her looks or anyone else’s and do not mention dieting, calorie counting or fat grams.

Do not share specific health concerns with your daughter, unless she is in immediate medical danger. Doing so will likely scare her and cause her to shut down or shut you out.

Do tell your daughter that you love her and want her to lead a long and healthy life.

Do talk to your daughter about the correlation between healthy eating habits and feeling energetic and healthy.

Do talk to your daughter about things she can do to improve her quality of life so that she feels stronger and more confident. (e.g. “Just like we go to school to keep our minds healthy, we go to the park or gym to keep our bodies healthy.”)

Do not make this a long, drawn out or intense conversation. Be light and non-chalant. Try to work these ideas into an existing conversation instead of bringing them up on their own.

Good Luck!

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