How to Talk About Obesity to Kids

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It’s no easier than the sex talk, but talking about obesity is a lot more complicated by internalized feelings. Tips on what to say — and what NOT to.

Most parents don’t like to talk about their own weight, so having an honest and open conversation with an overweight child is exceptionally difficult. You don’t want to gloss over the fact that junk food can have negative health consequences, and yet you want to remain sensitive to your child’s still-developing self-esteem. So how to even bring up the subject?

“I don’t know that I’d recommend a particular age or that I’d focus on weight as a number,” says Mary Matias Akhtar, M.D., at PsychBC’s Cincinnati-Liberty Township office. “I think early on, we need to talk to our children about different types of healthy choices in life: making healthy food choices, making the choice to limit screen time, and making the choice to be active and give our bodies what they need by running and playing. Developing good habits from infancy and toddlerhood can really set the stage for healthier habits as children, setting them up for healthy bodies.” But if your child comes to you, or your health care provider seems concerned, it’s time for a more focused conversation.

Once a kid hits the ‘tween and teen years, things change a little bit, but the conversation still shouldn’t center on weight by itself, says Akhtar. “The ‘tween years are a common time for children to become more aware of their bodies,” she says, adding that they may express concern over their weight, even if it’s at a healthy range. Keep the focus on being healthy. The teen years are a time to explore one’s independence, and Akhtar suggests you tread a little carefully here: “If a teen feels you’re telling them what to do and backing them into a corner, his inclination is going to be to rebel. If you give him appropriate choices, but he makes the choice, you’re helping him have a sense of ownership and confidence that he can make these decisions.” Akhtar suggests activities like helping with meal preparation as a great way to learn more about food and smart food choices, as well as spend time together as a family.

Akhtar advises that you avoid using words like obese, overweight or fat. She champions the use of the word healthy, but also suggests that you ask your child what he thinks being healthy means — this gives you a chance to relate health to how he feels physically and emotionally.

And you should pay attention to what you say about yourself and your own body — kids pay more attention than you might think.

“If kids see us or hear us talking about ourselves in a negative manner, they’re more likely to mimic that behavior as well,” adds Akhtar.

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