Parents often wonder how to support overweight children and how to talk about overweight. Psychologist and psychotherapist Susanna Angle answers the most common questions about children’s overweight and eating habits.
How can I teach my child to have a positive attitude to food?
A positive attitude to food needs to be learnt. Children learn best through their own experiences. Observational learning is also very important.
Parents should provide their children with positive experiences about food and eating. Gaining experience begins early in life. When babies are fed when they are hungry, they start to gain positive experiences: their need is fulfilled and they notice that food makes them feel good.
Learning is a continuous process: it’s never too late to establish a good attitude to food. The mealtime atmosphere should be kept relaxed for children of all ages, and you shouldn’t make a fuss about eating. Don’t press food on children or force them to eat. When meals are regular and unhurried, good eating habits form spontaneously.
Observational learning is powerful. Parents should act in the way they want their children to act. You can set a good example through your own behaviour at the table, showing a positive attitude to food and the way you talk about food: forget complaining about the calories, and avoid comfort eating and dieting if you don’t want your child to do the same. Don’t reward or comfort the child with food – let the food remain “just food”.
To summarize: Children eat what they like, like what they are familiar with, and become familiar with what is available.
Providing children with a balanced diet without pressing food on them helps them to learn healthy eating habits and a relaxed attitude to food.
How can I support my overweight child?
The most important thing is to make sure that children feel respected and loved just the way they are. That’s why the support should focus on acts rather than words. Strengthening children’s self-esteem is the foundation for all support. At the end of the day it’s simple: listen to your child, make time for doing things together and compliment the child. This makes the child feel good and important.
If you want to help your child to lose weight, do it indirectly. You can make small changes that benefit the whole family’s lifestyle without even bringing it up with the children. If you want your child to exercise more, go out together, as concrete actions work better than just ordering the child to get some exercise. You can do something that you both like, whether it’s everyday exercise (such as cycling) or taking up sports. A small lifestyle improvement will support children and give them an opportunity to learn by following your example. In order to improve the situation, the adults too need to make an effort!
How can parents discuss overweight with children?
If you want to bring up the subject of overweight, you should listen rather than talk. If the child seems to worry about weight, start by asking about these worries. The child may have different worries in mind (such as bullying) than the parents might have (such as the child’s health). Talking is most beneficial when it starts from the child’s viewpoint and experiences.
If you share your views as an adult, you should ask what the child thinks about them. The key is to make the child understand that they are not alone with their weight problem and that they are great just the way they are. That’s why you should not make remarks about weight. Although you are probably well intentioned, the child may feel they are not good enough.
Sometimes children may talk about their overweight in a negative way, e.g. by calling themselves fat. You can ask where they came up with such word. Has someone bullied them? When children talk about themselves in a negative way, it’s because they’re expressing their emotions. Try to grasp this emotion (“I’m stupid!” – “You’re probably sad, because the maths exam didn’t go well.” “I’m fat” – “What’s wrong? Did something happen at school?”).
The best way to get rid of a dismissive attitude is by talking about your child and yourself with dignity.
When should I start worrying about my child’s eating habits?
A clear change in the child’s eating habits may be a warning sign: if their appetite noticeably decreases or increases or if they become a fussy eater. Losing your nerve doesn’t tend to improve the situation – quite the contrary. That’s why you should monitor the situation calmly to see if the change is temporary or prolonged, as children’s appetite may vary for no particular reason. Sometimes changes in eating habits reflect other changes in the child’s life: starting daycare, getting a little sister or brother, or moving to a new home are a big deal for children. Adults too can react to life events by eating more or less than usual.
You should focus on the child’s overall health. A child who’s getting taller and who’s not losing or putting on weight is probably doing fine and eating right. If growth comes to a halt or weight fluctuates, you may have to look into it more carefully. The child’s mood is usually the best sign of their overall health. If you’re worried about your child’s eating habits but the child is happy and likes to play and there are no major weight changes, the situation is probably normal. If the child’s behaviour changes and the child becomes more withdrawn, irritated or low-spirited, you should find out the cause. Eating disorders are fortunately rare among children.
How should we practise eating in moderation?
Eating is part of a person’s behaviour. Changing one’s behaviour is easier if you think about it as learning a new skill. “I’m going to cut down on sweets” is rather dispiriting as it stresses giving up on something. But if you say, “I’m going to learn new ways to enjoy eating and life”, the point of view is nicer and more motivating.
What kinds of skills do you need to eat a healthy diet that helps control weight? You need to learn to eat at regular intervals, have a balanced diet and eat appropriate amounts – and just enjoy eating. You should have an uncomplicated and not too over-restrictive attitude to food, whether eating alone or in company.
Regular eating means not skipping breakfast or school lunch. Eating a balanced diet involves not being afraid to taste new foods or learning to eat veggies. All of these skills can be learnt step by step, or a bite by bite!
Eating appropriate amounts involves eating without hurrying and recognising when you are hungry and when you are full. Fortunately this is usually learnt as the eating rhythm becomes more regular. You can also become better at recognising when you are hungry, full or just have a craving by being aware of these sensations by listening to your body more carefully. You can teach your child these skills by discussing together how the tummy feels at different stages of eating. Slowing down your eating begins by giving it your attention. You could, for example, start to put down your knife and fork on the plate after each mouthful. The best ways to encourage slower eating can be found by asking your child to come up with their own ideas.
Awareness of your overweight may make your attitude to food more complicated. You may start to feel guilty about eating, hide eating sweet things or feel uncomfortable when eating in the company of others. Your relaxed and flexible attitude to food may then start to disappear. Flexible eating is not over-restrictive and doesn’t involve strict rules. In flexible eating, foods are not divided to permitted and forbidden foods. Strict rules don’t promote weight control, even if people think otherwise. Banning just worsens cravings and makes it more difficult to control eating. Strict rules may make you feel like a failure, as you can’t obey them in the long run.
To promote your child’s weight control, focus on a regular eating rhythm and a balanced diet. Set a good example by adopting a relaxed attitude to food and by listening to your body and appreciating it!