Talking to your child about the dangers of living an unhealthy lifestyle and carrying excess weight can be difficult, to stay the least. Not only is this a sensitive topic, but your child may not want to hear what you have to say. Dr. David Katz provides eight suggestions to keep in mind when broaching this topic.
Put the focus squarely on health and off weight. Whether by default or by design, each family has a health and wellness “culture.” This includes the types of food that are kept in the house, how heavily physical activity is emphasized, what sleep patterns are encouraged, how much health information is available, and more. As a parent, you should emphasize each aspect of this health culture, not just your child’s weight. Remember, healthy weight follows good lifestyle behaviors, but good lifestyle behaviors typically don’t follow weight-loss diets.
Recognize that you spend too much time focusing on weight. Most people don’t realize how much they use weight as a yardstick to measure their overall quality of life as well as their worth. For example, how many times have you asked about a piece of clothing, “Does this make me look fat?”—with the understanding that if the answer is “yes,” you’ve somehow failed? That’s why, when broaching the subject of weight with your child (and in your own life), it’s important to stop talking about weight—and even, to some extent, appearance—and emphasize other characteristics. For example, talk about how an unhealthy lifestyle influences your child’s self-esteem and thus demeanor, as well as how he expresses himself and the impression he makes on other people.
Ask your child what would help. Yes, you’re the authority figure in this relationship, but it can be a mistake to assume that you know the best way to help your child become healthier. One of the problems with giving support from a position of experience is that you tend to think that your child’s situation is the same as yours, and therefore, the things that worked for you will work for her. That’s not necessarily the case. Instead, it’s always a great idea to ask what your child thinks the best course of action would be. This, Dr. Katz says, is a main talking point when working with the families of MindStream students.
Focus on change, even if you run into resistance. The purpose of any discussion about losing weight and living a healthier lifestyle is to bring about change. In other words, talking to your teen about his weight angst for an hour might have some value because it allows him to vent, but try not to leave the discussion there. Try to take one step forward, too, even if your child is resistant to change. According to Dr. Katz, an effective way to overcome resistance (or even cut the conversation short if things are getting heated) is to get a commitment to make just one change in the next week. That might be anything from drinking fewer sodas and more water to walking three days a week. Dr. Katz adds that focusing on one simple change a week seems manageable (as opposed to dropping 30 pounds, which is overwhelming), and is a very constructive way to move the conversation forward without getting too bogged down.
Observe how your child (and the whole family) uses food. Your discussion will be better received and more effective if you are well informed, so before instigating “the talk,” observe how your child uses food. For example, if you see that she eats in order to manage her emotions, you’ve gained an important piece of information about a very damaging habit. The truth is, we aren’t always the best observers of ourselves. So if you can determine whether or not your child is using food as a drug to avoid discomfort or as a stress manager, you’re one step closer to attacking the root of the problem. You can explain to your child that this underlying eating “trigger,” not food itself, is what she’ll need to focus on managing.
Don’t be judgmental. One thing is for sure: Nobody is perfect. And another thing is also for sure: If you attack someone, he’ll stop listening to you. Taking those two truths into account, Dr. Katz insists that you should avoid blaming your child at all costs. The fact is, we live in a fat culture, and the majority of Americans are overweight—so in many ways, your child’s struggle isn’t his fault. However, it is his and your responsibility to do something about it. The focus should always be on how you can help your child move forward from here, expressed as lovingly as possible.
Walk the walk. In the end, your example is the best way to change your child’s health behaviors. Dr. Katz points out that teens in particular are sensitive to hypocrisy. So if you aren’t ready to make any and all of the changes that you’re asking of your child, don’t instigate the weight discussion in the first place. If you can’t walk the walk, then your actions will simply be encouraging your children to continue with deadly habits that will have a major negative impact on their lives.
And if you really can’t get through… Sometimes, despite their best efforts, parents just can’t get a positive response from their children. If this happens in your family, Dr. Katz is adamant thatsomeone needs to have the weight discussion with your child. Getting professional help is always a good idea, but there may be siblings, other relatives, friends, or even teachers who might get a more receptive response. And if all else fails? Well, Dr. Katz insists, all else can’t be allowed to fail. Your child’s life is too important.
About Dr. David Katz:
As one of the leading international authorities on nutrition, weight management, and the prevention of chronic disease, Dr. David Katz is in the trenches of the war against childhood obesity. In fact, he warned us many years ago that today’s younger generation will not live as long or as healthfully as their parents. Dr. Katz is also a prolific author, having published over 120 scientific papers, numerous textbook chapters, nearly a thousand newspaper columns, and a dozen books to date. In 2009 he was nominated for the position of U.S. Surgeon General to the Obama Administration by the American College of Physicians, the American College of Preventive Medicine, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, among other national and international health organizations. He is also the founding director of Yale University Prevention Research Center, director and founder of Integrative Medicine Center at Griffin Hospital, president of Turn the Tide Foundation, Inc., and editor-in-chief of the Childhood Obesity journal.