I will precede my comments in this post by saying that in my practice I see the individuals who are the “casualties” of confrontational combative discussions and treatment of weight issues. I am unquestionably biased about the issue as a result of seeing the emotional pain and scars that result from the mishandling of this issue, especially with children.
In my opinion, there are “right” ways and “wrong” ways to deal with a child who is “overweight”. First of all, when a child is young, especially during the growth and development years, their bodies are supposed to get wider before they get taller. If weight is made in to a big issue at this life stage, and a child is restricted to too few calories and essential nutrients, there could potentially be a stunting of his/her growth and development.
It’s not only the physical complications associated with restricting a child’s intake or putting a child on a diet that are bad enough, but also the psychological ramifications that can leave a child with lifelong emotional scars and weight and disordered eating issues.
I want to share with you a few stories that I have encountered during my years as a nutrition therapist. I am only one person and if I’ve seen a number of cases like the ones I will describe, imagine how many others there are.
Several years ago, a family of four came in as clients. There was a mom, a dad, and twin 9 year old girls. One of the girls was “skinny” and the other one was ‘fat”, according to the parents. The parents wanted to bring all of them in to discuss making changes in their eating but actually the visit was an attempt to make the “fat” daughter lose weight without her feeling singled it. On the first visit, the father called me aside and said he was concerned that his overweight daughter was going to be bullied in school, was going to grow up having no friends and lead a life of misery and loneliness like he did because he was a “fat kid”. So, after hearing his plea for me to “fix” his daughter, I met the four of them and discussed life in their household with the food. The daughters were quiet and the dad did most of the talking. I asked if I could meet with the daughters separately and we agreed. When I got the “fat” daughter alone in the room for a short session, she said “I don’t think my father loves me as much as my sister. He always lets her have anything she wants and he yells at me for my eating. At Easter, she got a big chocolate bunny and I got a small one. It doesn’t seem fair.”
Another little girl was brought in to see me because her father wanted her to lose weight. He was a very intelligent thoracic surgeon. He was so anxious to get her to lose weight, he demanded she go on the treadmill for 45 minutes each day. She was 7 years old. He said it was because he wanted her to be healthy and prevent all types of diseases like heart disease but also so that she looked good and was able to like herself better. She never complained to me that her weight was causing her to dislike herself. She actually seemed pretty secure in her skin.
A mom brought her 13 year old daughter in because she had just come from a pediatrician visit where the doctor berated the mother (in front of the daughter) for “allowing” her daughter to gain 20 pounds in a year. The mother cried when she told me the story. She said she felt like such a terrible mother and said she felt like she should lock her daughter in a closet and starve her until she lost the weight. Obviously this brutal tactic didn’t take place.
A beautiful 12 year old girl came to me to “learn” how to like healthy foods. When I asked her what types of food she liked and didn’t like, and why she was so interested in “learning” how to eat healthy foods, she told me that she liked pop tarts, sugared cereal, cookies and pasta but she wanted her father to stop forcing food (literally) into her mouth. She told me that her father would stuff peas into her mouth and hold her mouth shut until she would chew and swallow them to teach her how to like vegetables. She HATED vegetables as a result.
I could list story after story like these, representative of the “wrong” ways to parent children with food. I wish I could tell you that stories like this are uncommon. But they are not. In fact, even the most well intentioned parents are apt to make significant mistakes in the treatment of food and weight issues. Much of the parenting of children in the food arena comes from the parents’ own weight and food issues. Sometimes it comes from a genuine concern about health but that concern is significantly overshadowed by “fat phobia”. When “fat phobia” begins to rear its ugly head, food rules change and parents tend to become more emotional about food and much more controlling and rigid with food.
Children that experience food withholding or restriction or overt dieting at a very young age often become very “resourceful” in getting their food needs met. Restriction is scary because hunger is scary if it cannot be satiated. They will beg for food, whine, and cry, throw tantrums and yell at their parents that they are hungry. If that doesn’t work, they will go to greater lengths to not feel deprived. They will ask peers at school for food and sneak food at home. When they are at friends’ houses they will eat more than their friends because they know they won’t get the food at home. At parties, they will take advantage of the opportunity to drink large amounts of soda and eat excessive sweets and other foods they aren’t allowed at home. They will go to great lengths to not feel deprived.
So, how do early childhood eating/withholding patterns, parental control and overt dissatisfaction affect a child’s eating patterns, their instinctive ability to self-regulate and their overall love for a variety of food? How does it affect their body image and self-image? I think it is easy to see that all these factors can affect a child very negatively in the short-term and in the long term. It can set the child up for a disordered view of food and themselves. It may create aversions for certain foods as well as strong cravings for others. It also can cause weight gain, the very thing that is being focused on so strongly.
Most of the “overweight” children that I have treated have not been overweight because of a thyroid or other medical issue. They have been overweight because of excessive control being exerted over their food by parents, excessive focus placed on the size and shape of their body by others, the unhealthy role modeling of food by their parents, underactivity, because they are using food to cope with their stress, or a combination of these factors.
So what is the answer to the question “how do I parent my ‘overweight’ child with food? “For great detailed solutions, you can read Ellyn Satter’s book called How to Get Your Child to Eat…But Not Too Much. But, the premise of her work is to practice a division of responsibility. The parent is responsible for what is served, when it is served and where it is served. The child is ultimately responsible for how much they eat.
Also, if a child is given access to more variety of foods, with no emotion attached, they will be more apt to choose a wider array of choices. This is by no means a quick process but the more abundant the food choices and the less pressure experienced around food, the more natural the food relationship can become. Keeping the house free of “fun” foods will only cause the child to seek them out elsewhere.
Positive healthy parental role modeling with food and body image is also an essential component in the fostering of a child’s good relationship with food. “Do as I say, not as I do” will not work! Children will imitate their parents. If there is excessive negative talk about food, dieting, or anyone’s body in the house, no matter how innocent it may seem, it can exacerbate negative feelings and unhealthy food behaviors. Using derogatory words as a motivator for healthy eating NEVER works. The focus must always be kept positive.
Fun movement can help a child feel better about him/herself because movement brings pleasure. Movement cannot be tied into weight though because it won’t feel pleasurable or natural and will be short-lived. Getting on a treadmill is not pleasurable for many people, especially not for a child. Ice skating, sledding, and building a snowman are fun winter activities. Other times of the year they can walk, play ball, kayak, swim, hike, dance, jump rope, climb, skip, throw the Frisbee, walk the dog, climb trees, go to the batting cages, go bowling, biking, or skateboarding.
And, lastly, if the child is using food to cope with their feelings because they aren’t able to comfortably express them, or if the household is chaotic or stressful and the child is impacted by the stress, the issues and the child’s feelings need to be directly, openly and honestly addressed and supported. If a child uses food to cope, beginning at an early age, they are more apt to continue to use it rather than look for other healthier coping mechanisms (especially if they are not taught them by their parents).
So, as you can see, the food and weight issues of a child cannot be managed through withholding of food, dieting, negative body talk and “do as I say” tactics. They are complex and need to be treated seriously, compassionately, creatively and ultimately in a positive supportive way. When a child is able to learn how to self-regulate their food, their body will, in turn, become the body that is the healthiest for them, NO MATTER WHAT SIZE IT IS.
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