How to help your overweight child gain confidence

Many parents ask:

“My child has put on weight (or has always been larger than her peers),and now it’s affecting her self-confidence. I want to help her lose weight – I know that she will feel better about herself if she does.“

Firstly, I get it. As a parent, I know how much you want to protect your children, and give them the best chance of having a healthy happy life when they grow up.

I know that you believe that if only they were thinner, things would be easier for them.

And maybe you are right. If it were possible to change a child’s size, without any risk of long-term damage, I would say to you GO RIGHT ahead.

But here’s the catch. It’s not risk-free. In fact, it’s very high risk.  All the research shows that by making any issue of a child’s weight – subtle, not subtle, healthy meal plans, the “look”, a formal diet, healthy eating plan for the whole family with the intention to get a child to lose weight”, will actually accelerate the chance of making your worst fear come true – your child growing up into an overweight adult, who is larger than nature intended him be.

According to Ellyn Satter,RD, MS, MSSW, leading authority and family therapist and feeding and eating specialist:

“Parents who are concerned about child overweight or have anti-fat attitudes are likely to restrict children’s food intake.1 Parental feeding restriction is associated with increased child food intake and higher child body weight.2

And further:

“Dieting has been associated with a fivefold to 18-fold increased risk of developing an eating disorder.Teenagers who diet are at risk of excess weight gain over time.”3

Many people who struggle with eating disorders, body-image, or just constantly fearing and hating their body, – were told at a young age that they were too big, or they were put on a diet or healthy eating plan like this woman who was taken to weight watchers at age 7. Even just a parent FEELING like their child’s weight is a problem can cause a child to be fatter than they would otherwise be.

Even those subtle comments like these backfire terribly:

  • “Do you really need that second helping of pizza”
  • “Are you sure you are still hungry”
  • “You need to carry start doing gymnastics..
  • “Sammy is my big boy, he never gets full, he loves food”
  • Let’s go on a healthy eating plan”
  • “Rather take carrots instead of grapes in your lunchbox, they have less sugar”

They may SEEM helpful in the present moment but in fact, years down the lines here’s what people say:

“I wish I was told I was ok as I was instead of being brought to weight watchers and starting a crazy dieting cycle for years” – Jenny – age 38

“My mom always asked me if I was really hungry or just eating because I was bored, and now I never know if I am allowed to eat or not, and end up overeating because I am so starving by the time I let myself actually eat” – Sarah, 25

“All my friends got sandwiches for lunch, but I got rice cakes, and I was always starving at school. Today, I eat bread to the point of feeling ill. – Jack, 55

In short: Any attempt to get your child to lose weight will make sure they end up LARGER and more OVERWEIGHT – in the short and long term.

So, now that we know that diets or any attempts trying to get a child to be smaller, comes with significant risks, what can a parent do?

The answer my friends, is to change how you see weight.

Only when you see weight as modifiable (without any risks of harm), do we pursue weight loss for our child as an option.

So, in this new paradigm, where we cannot modify weight without high risks, as parents we need to change our tactic. Weight can be modified – if we want to ruin our child’s relationship food, ensure they have a low self-esteem, and have a high chance of developing eating disorders and being overweight / obese as an adult.

Of course you don’t want to take that risk!

So the question becomes:

“How can I support my child who has low confidence, due to something I can’t change?”

The answer lies deeper than swapping out pretzels for cucumbers.

The answer is three-fold:

  1. Acceptance
  2. Resilience
  3. Trust-based feeding

Let’s talk about why these factors are part of your game plan for supporting your child and helping them, instead of harming them.

  • Acceptance

A child’s sense of self-acceptance is fundamentally rooted in their parent’s unconditional acceptance of them. Parents say “my child will feel better about himself if they he is skinnier”. When the truth is that if the child is skinnier, parents will feel better about their children, and themselves as parents, if their child’s size is more acceptable to them.

Accepting your child with all their limitations is what builds confident children, and visa versa.

As Ellyn Satter says:

Children who are labeled overweight feel flawed in every way: not smart, not physically capable and not good about themselves.4

Children may have learning difficulties, emotional challenges or other things that challenge them, and we don’t blame them. We do our best to accept them unconditionally. Self-confidence comes from the inside, and trying to fix a child to make them confident will do just the opposite – it will make sure they know they are only worthy if they are thin (or academically successful or good at sports in other scenarios).

It’s harder for some parents to accept their child’s size when weight triggers the parent. If the parent was overweight, or was bullied, or values thinness a lot, the parent has to work really hard to address their own issues and understand why they can’t accept their child and unconditionally love due to their size. (Many parents in this situation benefit greatly from counselling to help them resolve their own weight issues which are affecting their relationship with their child).

Scarily, parents who only want the best for their children, are often the primary source of lasting damage.

Parents have also been identified as a source of weight-based victimization toward youth with obesity. In a survey study of adolescents attending weight-loss camps, 37% reported they had been teased or bullied about their weight by a parent.5 Survey researchers assessing experiences of weight stigma among women with obesity found that family members were reported to be the most prevalent interpersonal source of weight-stigma incidents, with 53% reporting weight stigma from their mothers and 44% reporting it from their fathers.6 Weight stigma expressed by parents can have a lasting effect on children, who continue to report emotional consequences from these experiences through adulthood.7″

  • Resilience

Imagine your child was socially awkward, or for any other reason likely to be teased – and it was something you COULD NOT change, like their height, their race, or their personality. Would you cut their legs off? Would you use skin lighteners if they were darker than their peers?

NO!

You would give them the tools to handle adversity. You would build up their self-esteem from the inside. You would teach them their value – and help them stand up to bullies. It’s not easy, but you would know your goal. Now doing this right depends on ACCEPTANCE. Once you have accepted your child, you can begin empowering them with the tools and skills to face their challenges. There are many fabulous books and resources out there for developing resilience in children. If a child is already struggling with self-esteem, finding a counsellor or therapist who works with children could be a great support. This is my all-time favourite podcast on why acceptance is key to your child’s size and health. Podcast link here.

And even if you do succeed in getting your child to be smaller they will always know deep down that your love and acceptance of them is conditional on how they look.

  • TRUST-BASED FEEDING

Now, once you have accepted your child’s body, genes and current size as a non-modifiable trait, the question is HOW TO FEED THEM.

Acceptance is all very well, you may say, but what do I do when my child wants three helpings of potatoes? What do I do when my child eats bags of chips in one sitting?

The short answer is: as you would feed any of your children if you were not concerned about their size. Now this does NOT mean let them eat whatever they want whenever they want. That’s unhelpful feeding advice for any child – large or small.

You want to feed them according to the Division of Responsibility of Feeding. You want structure, and support. You want them to learn body-trust. Following this feeding structure will help your child reach THEIR healthy body weight, and develop healthy eating attittudes and behaviours.

I highly recommend buying these age-relevant booklets from the Ellyn Satter website for just $5 (approx R70) and following a STRICT division of responsibility. If you want to dive in and learn in-depth, this book is fabulous.

If you are finding this really difficult to implement, and its impacting your relationship – you may benefit from some support around what it means have a larger child, and moving past blocks.

A couple more things:

  1. You also want to be aware that its normal and healthy for pre-teens (even age 9 & up) to gain weight. Understanding this, and not freaking out, will go along way in creating a healthy relationship to food and lettting your child develop according to their body’s sizes.
  2. Health and nutritious eating is wonderful. But if you choose to incorpoprate more nutritious foods DO NOT make it ONLY for the child you are concerned about. Feed everyone the same food. Do not even mention the word healthy. Kids are very very perceptive. Just offer the food and follow DOr.
  3. Same with movement. Offer opportunities for movement as a family and as child, but don’t force it or make it something he/she hates.
  4. Track your child’s growth pattern since birth. If he/she was always on the upper end of the chart for height/ weight, then by trying to mess with it it you will make it worse. If they have accelerated sharply in weight according to percentiles (not your eyes), get help froma  DOR trained expert. It may be puberty. It may be emotional eating. It may be normal growth. It may mean the child is feeling unsafe around food. It’s a symptom, not a cause, of a feeding relationship which deserves attention.
  5. And finally; you want to stand up for your child. If family members say mean things, or even say little comments, like “wow you really like icecream”, “ are you sure you need an extra slice of cake”, you want to firmly make it known that you do not accept or tolerating any bullying, teasing or shaming of your child. Even those little jokes which poke fun at his appetite or size can do lasting damage. You would not allow anyone to tease your child about any other sensitive factor, and weight/food is no different.

I wish you the best on this journey – your child is blessed to have you support him or her in this way.

 

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