When you want to talk to kids about weight loss, you need to approach the subject with care and compassion, making sure your children know that you love them no matter what. It can be difficult to give this kind of advice because of the fear that your intentions could be misinterpreted. That's why you should approach the subject as a way of becoming healthier rather than reaching a specific weight or size.
Here, Sarah Favila, MD, a pediatrician at Dignity Health Medical Foundation - Woodland and Davis, shares enlightening advice on how to talk about weight loss with your children.
Avoid Words That Have a Negative Stigma
The words you use make a big difference in how your child reacts. Avoid terms like "morbidly obese," "extremely obese," and "fat," which have stigma associated with them, Favila recommends. And avoid words like "skinny," which promote body shape rather than health. Instead, focus on neutral words like "weight," "healthy," and "BMI" (body mass index). And use "we" rather than "you" to show that you're in this together.
"This can be a very difficult topic, but some of it is just about the framework you put it in," Favila advises. "Words carry weight and stigma. Try to avoid words that tap into feelings of sadness and embarrassment."
Steer Clear of Blame
Make sure your child doesn't feel you're blaming them or pointing fingers for the weight problem. When approaching the conversation, focus on topics like height and growth. For example, you can start out by talking about how much your child has grown.
"Start out talking about height," Favila suggests. "Explain that a person's height is mostly determined by genetics, which can't be changed. This can be a great bridge to then talk about all the complexities that go into our body makeup. Genetics and a family's environment play a key role in a person's weight, too."
By taking this route, you can talk about how complex our bodies are and how they can differ from person to person. Weight is just one of those many differences that we have to consider.
Make It a Family Goal
Just as your entire family would work together to encourage a child in sports — such as attending all their games — you also need to work together for weight loss goals, Favila says. Focus on getting the entire family healthier rather than just one child.
"Having a healthy lifestyle really requires a family commitment," she explains.
That means planning a healthy menu for everyone and filling the house with healthy snacks and drinks. Avoid calorie counting, as this can be troublesome for children, and instead focus on eating healthier. If it feels overwhelming, start with a few substitutions here and there.
"Make the choices when you can, like maybe not cooking with heavy cream, limiting your sweets, and deciding we're going to cut out soda," she suggests. "It's modeling behavior and simple choices like, 'We're all going to switch to fat-free milk.'"
You might also consider other small changes, like giving orange slices for snacks, offering an apple with a bit of peanut butter, or replacing soda with flavored water. But don't just focus on food. Include exercise so the focus is on healthier living, not just healthier eating. And if the siblings complain, remind them that being healthy isn't a punishment — it's important for everyone.
"Pick manageable goals," Favila suggests. "We recommend an hour a day of exercise, but you can start small. Tap into what works for your family. It can be a family walk or taking the dog for a light, brisk jog. If your child's been showing interest in organized sports, which have so many benefits, it may be time for them to sign up."
Don't Let Setbacks Stop You
Of course, no one is perfect and you'll have setbacks from time to time. But instead of getting angry, focus on what motivates your child. You might need to reiterate that it's important to respect what makes us unique. It might also help to find good role models and monitor what your child looks at on social media. Talk to your children on their level, Favila emphasizes.
Even if it's uncomfortable, it's important to talk to kids about weight now to set them up for a healthy future.
"If you can prepare your child to make smart decisions now, they will continue to do so in college," Favila explains. "It's not a treatment plan. We're teaching them to get healthy for the rest of their lives."
It's a family journey. Are you ready to get started?