The majority of my ideas for articles come from sessions that I have had with clients and the struggles that they have. These are struggles that I think a good majority of people experience. This past week, I saw a client that has always battled her weight. She grew up with a mom who taught her that emotional eating was just what you did to deal with emotion. Happy or sad, frustrated or elated, food was the go to. Fast forward, she is now married and has two school-aged girls of her own. She has always been on the diet cycle and has always battled her weight.
This client brought up to me that her third grade daughter told her that she wanted to lose weight. She has brought this daughter up in previous sessions before, expressing her nervousness of how her weight has trended on the higher side. She immediately went into suggestions with her daughter on what she could change and what foods she could limit. How many parents that have battled weight themselves, do you think do exactly this? Do you know what this is? This is the parent placing their own past experience and feelings with their weight on to their child. We all do this as a parent, at some point or another, with our anxieties that we can project onto our kids. But when it comes to food and weight, it can send the message that, “yes, there is something wrong with you and you should change.” As much as the child may be seeking advice, they will likely feel judgement. It has been shown that parents that try to control their child’s eating is done more often by obese parents than that of normal weight parents. When a parent is projecting their past weight experience, the parent can feel as if they are being helpful, they are “protecting them from what they went through.” But in reality, they are placing their feelings and fears onto their child and causing harm, rather than actually being good for the child.
So what should be done instead? ASK your child why they want to go on a diet or what lead them to wanting to lose weight. If they say, they feel that they are overweight, ask them why they feel that way, even if it may be true by medical growth chart standards. The importance is to gauge where the child is with how they feel about their body and why they feel that way. The next most important thing is to concentrate on behaviors for health versus their weight and again keep it in their court. Try asking, “What changes were you thinking that you would like to make?” Let them guide their journey. When it is from them and not you, there is no judgment.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, recently released an article that discusses the importance of doctors not mentioning weight loss, but rather focusing on healthy behaviors with food and exercise for those children that are overweight. The article discusses, that with more of a focus on weight, there has been a higher risk and occurrence of eating disorders, including binge eating in these children. One study found that by the time a dieter reaches the age of fifteen, they are eight times more likely to suffer from an eating disorder than non-dieters. That is a SCARY statistic!! In other words: a child should NEVER be put on a diet for weight loss!! To read more of the article, go to http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2016/08/22/american_academy_of_pediatrics_doctors_should_avoid_weight_talk_and_dieting.html
It is important to point out that if your child has always followed their growth curve at about the same percentile, they are OKAY!! They are following the growth that their body is meant to take. Remember, we come in all shapes and sizes! Also, look at where in the “life cycle” your child may be. Are they entering puberty? Remember that developing girls can gain 20 to 60 pounds in only two to four years. Read that again if you have to. This is normal and can be interpreted as being overweight with our cultural focus on weight and weight gain. Sadly, some doctors forget this and create a hyperawareness on weight.
I can’t tell you how many clients that I have seen in my practice that tell me how their eating habits were greatly impacted with their doctor commenting on their weight. It’s as if the doctor says it, then it must be true, that “where I am is not okay.” But parents play an even more crucial role. Parents who have battled weight issues growing up, do not want their child to feel the pain, or embarrassment they may have felt. The parent feels as if they are being helpful and protecting the child from what they went through or what “could happen” by controlling their food or making comments on their weight. That in fact is a part of the issue, even though it most likely comes from a good place. A study out of Duke University found that parents that tried to restrict their school-aged children’s eating, showed a higher association of children that were of excess weight. A parent does need to guide what healthy choices do look like, but as I have written many times before, there needs to be balance of the “sometimes” food in there too. They are kids! But what is as equally important, is parents not interfering with their child’s natural cues of hunger and fullness. When the parent tries to control those cues by telling them when and how much they can eat, they are doing so much more harm and will actually make their child’s eating behaviors worse, not better. Dietitian and therapist Ellyn Satter, www.ellynsatterinstitute.org, preaches that if parents puts the control back in an overweight child’s court, that child will actually eat less. The child can then be in tune to their internal signals of hunger and fullness and not make it about the deprivation or power of food.
Parents that still battle their own weight, do not always think that their diet habits are imprinting on their kids. Kids pick up on the foods that are no longer allowed or when there may be a free for all with food. The worst part with this is the body and weight talk that more than likely goes with this and the message that being overweight or “fat” is NOT okay. We are certainly surrounded by a society that supports that notion.
What I want to put out there is for parents, any shape or size, but especially to those who struggle with their weight, to be watchful of your language with your own food and body talk. But more importantly, what you may say to your child about theirs. If your child asks about their weight or says they want to lose weight-do not agree or answer them. Ask them why they feel that way? What were they thinking when they came to this decision? What were things they wanted to change? If they are intent on changing, keep the change of behavior to be about health NOT their weight. If they seem to be really struggling with their body and weight, seek help from a professional. We all want to raise confident kids that feel good about themselves and their bodies, but we need to be aware when we may be placing our own weight and food baggage on our kids and causing more harm than good. A child does not have to repeat that same history as the parent experienced. But the parent has to be willing to set their own fears and projections aside, so they can help foster a healthy, positive food and body relationship for their child.