Smoking, drinking, the dreaded-by-both-sides "birds and bees" talk. Now parents find they have to speak to their children about yet another loaded subject: weight.
A recent study by Sanford Health and WebMD Raising Fit Kids found 29% of kids would be annoyed if a parent tried to discuss weight. Another 18% would be confused, 18% embarrassed and only 2% happy.
The same study shows that parents would rather talk with their kids about sex, drugs, alcohol and cigarette smoking than weight; more than one in five parents have never brought up the subject. Parents may think it's unnecessary if their child is normal weight. If their child is overweight, parents worry about creating shame or triggering an eating disorder. Other parents are uncomfortable with their own weight and avoid the topic entirely.
Take heart: Parents who are open with their children about uncomfortable issues share a stronger bond, and their children are less likely to engage in risky behaviors and bad habits, including compulsive overeating or eating disorders.
Some tactics for this tough topic:
- Babies to preschoolers can learn the basics about healthy living, nutritious food and exercise. Get clear on your own values and which lessons you want to teach. Be as honest as possible. Try "Mommy's not crazy about vegetables, either, but we need to eat them" or "following the rules of good health will help you live longer and feel better" instead of false cheer. Focus on reminding your child that you strongly want him or her to be healthy and happy, and that starts with a healthy lifestyle.
- As children grow, regularly discuss healthful eating. Together, research facts and plan meals. At fast-food restaurants, look up the nutrition facts and make the healthiest choice. Mainly, keep your ears open for any chance to introduce a discussion of body image, weight or food in a natural way, as opposed to sitting down and saying, "We need to talk about your weight."
- If a child comes to you about weight or if you think your child is overweight, first visit a doctor to see if there's a legitimate concern and, if needed, to get help formulating a plan. Take care, though. Overweight adults who were overweight children confirm that focus on diets and weight creates greater issues, including weight gain, lower self-esteem and depression. For long-term success physically and psychologically, focus on healthy habits and taking care of the body.
- If the prospect of a talk causes too much distress, recruit a stand-in, ideally a close friend or relative your child feels comfortable with. If all else fails, consider an empathetic therapist. Better that your child talk with someone than no one.
By Stacy Kaiser, Special for USA TODAY