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How To Talk To Your Kids About Weight

For many adults, the dawn of a new year goes hand-in-hand with a renewed pledge to lose those extra pounds. But what if it’s your child who needs to shed some weight? Experts at Tufts Medical Center believe parents should address the subject of becoming healthier head-on, and have created a unique program to help them play a hands-on role in making it happen.  

One-third of American youth are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That number has more than doubled in children, and quadrupled in adolescents, over the past 30 years, putting them at risk for a host of costly physical health problems that used to be relegated to adults, such as heart disease, diabetes, bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and psychological issues like poor self esteem, lower quality of life and increased likelihood of being bullied or teased. 

Experts say parents should talk to their children about their weight, but caution them to be careful in the manner in which they address it. A 2016 study in the journal Eating and Weight Disorders found that what a parent says to a child about their weight can have negative repercussions for years afterwards. 

“If the child is very young, then a conversation may be quick and simple, pointing out the family’s interest in being healthier together,” says Michael Leidig, MS, RD, Clinical Director, Center for Youth Wellness at the Floating Hospital for Children.  “If older, you may start by asking open ended questions regarding how the child feels about their health/weight,” he suggests. 

Overall, Leidig advises parents to keep it simple, don’t place blame on the kids, never act as the ‘food police,’ show support, and develop a concrete, realistic plan.

To provide assistance, Tufts MC and the Floating Hospital for Children teamed up to design an innovative program called Healthier Together. In order to empower families to make healthy changes, the curriculum centers on three goals - learning about nutrition, being more physically active, and leading a healthier lifestyle. Over the course of 11-weeks, teens and their parents work with a range of health experts: dietitians, psychologists, fitness trainers, and professionals in adolescent and adult medicine. Sessions are held in group settings with other families, along with a one-on-one meeting with professionals. This is the only academic medicine-based family nutrition and fitness program in Boston. 

“The best way for kids to learn is to see their parents doing healthy things,” explains Susan Meagher, PhD, a psychologist in the Center for Youth Wellness at Floating Hospital for Children.  “Children who see their parents taking a walk or eating more fruit and vegetables instead of watching TV or on their phone will learn healthy behavior through modeling.” 

For those who don’t have access to the program, Leidig offers a few tips to make simple changes that will pay off in the long run: 

  • Reinforce roles for healthy eating. Parents are responsible for providing healthy food and kids are responsible for deciding how much of that they eat.  Work together to come up with healthy meals that are balanced incorporating vegetables, healthy fats, protein, and whole grains.
  • Prioritize good sleep because it helps regulate hormones, energizes the body, and affects decision-making.
  • Be active together.
  • Set limits on screen time and no TV during dinner or in the bedroom.

“While weight is a difficult subject to tackle with your child, it is one that should not be ignored or put off,” says Dr. Meagher.  “Helping your kids to achieve a healthy weight- showing them how to make appropriate food choices and be active -- provides a lifelong lesson to them.” 

Healthier Together is enrolling now for late January of 2017. To qualify, parents and children both need to be overweight. For more information, call 617-636-6086. 

Posted 1/9/17 

The above content is provided for educational purposes by Tufts Medical Center. It is free for educational use. For information about your own health, contact your physician.