I have an eight-year-old daughter who is overweight. She turns to food for everything and would just keep gobbling it up if I let her. I don’t want to make her too conscious of her weight, but her eating habits need to change. I’ve tried putting her on diets and getting her to exercise with me, but she isn?t losing much weight. What else can I do?
This is a very common — and very difficult — dilemma. You’re right, it’s hard to be helpful with a child’s weight problem without giving the impression that you’re dissatisfied with who he or she is. The best things you can do are:
1. Make the issue a family issue. Health is everyone’s problem, so just like with discipline, it’s important to get both parents (if both are present) on board with a common agenda. It doesn’t work if one parent is pushing healthy nutrition while the other camps on the sofa with a bag of chips every day.
2. Talk openly with your child about your desire to help, not hurt, her. Define the problem with your child and, if appropriate for her age, solicit her help in creating the solution. Just like with any adult weight management plan, if you buy into the plan and feel ownership of it, you’re more likely to have success.
3. Tune in to your child’s emotional well-being. Is your child using food for coping? Is she depressed or anxious? Emotional issues should be addressed directly. Get professional help if necessary.
4. Focus on health goals instead of physical appearance goals. Try not to make your child feel that she doesn’t look right. Emphasize the health benefits of exercise and physical fitness, including the emotional payoffs of being strong and active. Remember that body shape is largely genetic and even if you don’t have a model’s figure, you can still be physically fit.
5. Avoid power struggles over food. Parents should teach good nutrition, but not by criticizing and shaming a child’s unhealthy choices. It’s better to allow your child the freedom to choose within healthy limits by saying something like, “For a treat you may have an apple, a pear or an orange. It’s up to you.” You’re up against powerful forces here, not the least of which are the barrage of TV ads that push sugar, sugar and more sugar. A gentle, yet firm, approach can be effective.
6. Increase the activity level of the family. Think about how many family activities these days are sedentary: computer games, television, dining out. Create opportunities to promote exercise, such as taking a family bike ride or even a family jog. You’ll all feel better.
7. Decrease the availability of unhealthy food choices in your home. You don’t have to brand junk food as “forbidden,” just limit the amount you bring into the house. Increase the availability of healthy alternatives, such as fresh fruits and vegetables.
8. Set a good example. Make sure your child sees you exercising regularly and choosing healthy foods. Also, make sure your child observes you coping with stress in a positive manner.
9. Nurture your child’s self-esteem. Everybody has a body and no body’s perfect, so help your child recognize her strengths as a unique human being.
10. Admit your mistakes when you make them. There are no perfect parents and if you slip up and sound critical of your child, apologize. Show her that you’re strong enough to face your own shortcomings and she will be too.