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I will caveat this article straight up by saying that I am neither a child psychologist nor a nutritionist.

What I am is a woman who has been dieting since she was seven years old so you could call me a veteran of sorts. After years of difficult and often debilitating experiences related to my weight, I find it a topic impossible to discuss anymore.

To that vicious voice of self-criticism in my mind, I have literally become the white elephant in the room.

In that context, it is with great trepidation that I post this article. I hope I won’t be offered endless weight-loss advice or decried for being all things that society says I should not be.

Yet there’s a certain level of fearlessness in posting too, borne of the fact that my mind could conjure up far worse and imaginative things to call myself when I look in the mirror than any grammatically challenged Internet troll ever could.

I’m also posting because whenever I see an overweight child my heart sinks a little. I can only wish they haven’t suffered similarly from the ways in which the adults around them interact with them about their weight.

If I can save one child out there some of that pain, then the risk of posting would have been worth it.

So here it is, my list of points for parents struggling with what to say or do if their child is overweight or obese. I hope it helps, I really do.

Skip the labels – Sticks and stones may break your bones but, unlike the saying, words can have a lasting and highly damaging effect on a child’s self-esteem and body image.

Fat is such an ugly word. Get out your thesaurus and find some another adjectives.

A child is a child, not a walking embodiment of an affliction – Also equally ugly is talking about a child in the abstract, as though their physical attributes are the sum of their parts.

All children – no matter whatever shape, colour or creed – have a heart and feelings to go along with them.

The shame game doesn’t work – There are many, many studies out there clearly showing that shaming overweight people in an attempt to make them lose weight does not work and actually has the opposite effect.

As I said at the beginning, I’m not a child psychologist but I don’t think you need to be one to see that shaming children with jokes or outright criticism about their weight while they are still developing a sense of self and confidence is probably not a smart move.

Model healthy behaviour – Approaching the weight issue isn’t only about words, it’s also about action.

I have an idea for a dieting craze that might just be crazy enough to actually work: a rubber bracelet that says, “Would I feed my child this?” If the answer is no, then maybe it is time to reassess your own eating choices – particularly when they are consumed in front of children.

And I’m not just talking here about the obvious burgers and fries but also crash-dieting on shakes to lose weight fast. Modelling and encouraging the whole family to a well-balanced diet coupled with regular exercise is a positive way to address weight without singling out any particular family members.

If they raise it, listen first – you may be waiting for the moment that your child raises the issue of their weight and, when the times come, get overexcited and gush all the advice onto them that you’ve been holding back.

Don’t. Let them have a voice, listen to their frustration and hurt. If they’re raising this as an issue, odds on there is a lot of that going on under the surface.

Kids can be cruel, particularly to other kids who fall outside the norm for whatever reason.

Then choose your words wisely – Only when they have said their piece, gently tread into the conversation and model it around what concerns they have raised rather than piling on new ones.

I remember once I told my mother I was worried about my weight and she immediately launched into her concerns about the size of my legs. I didn’t even think of my legs as a problem but have since spent the last 20 years camouflaging them.

Overweight children are not deaf – this one isn’t specifically for parents but for adults in general. Some of the harshest things said about my weight growing up were not said at me but about me.

I knew the tone straight away, a sort of bitchy half-whisper that adult women (it was always women) seemed to get when I was around. I remember one time gathering on the steps of our school for a photo with the staff. One of the relief teachers whispered to another that they would stand beside me because (cue half-whisper) “the fat ones always make you look slimmer in photos”. I can’t even begin to tell you the wonders that did to my already non-existent self-esteem.

Remember their beauty – there is something special and beautiful in all children by the simple default that they embody our love and hope for the future. Nurture your child’s self-esteem, compliment them for the things they can do and encourage them into hobbies they enjoy.

Let them see they are more than a number on the scales because, really, they should be able to see this and be comforted that the people who love them see that too.

  • I know a young girl who plays a lot of active sports, eats mainly vegetables and not quite so much fruit. They all have lean meat as one of the parents tends to have high cholesterol which seems to be hereditary. The girl is a bit overweight. She isn’t a “sweet tooth” so she doesn’t add sugar to food.
    Her Dad is tall and a bit on the big side but he has solid large muscles. I am wondering if the girl’s could tend to be hereditary.

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  • I don’t understand how parents can let their children become overweight, they control,what the kids are eating. Feed them healthy, nutritious food with exercise incorporated every day. There should be no problems, unless their are medical issues

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  • A parent stood in the doorway of my son’s classroom and spoke loudly at how fat my son was. Now every time I tell my son to go play in the backyard he asks me, “Are you trying to make me exercise because I’m fat.” Some parents are just the worst!

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  • People can be cruel and pass comments about children and adults that are underweight.
    I know of one child who is tall and very thin like her Dad. She loves sport and eats plenty of F&V and other essential healthy food. Her Mum was accused of underfeeding her. Believe me she has a healthy appetite. She certainly doesn’t starve. She doesn’t like or eat much junk food. I personally have a cousin who has always been very tall and slim for his age. As an adult he is a lot taller than either of his parents were. He has to “duck” his head to walk though a standard doorway. I know he ate a home preserved jar of stewed fruit for breakfast most days before he went to school.

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  • This article makes me sad. Sounds like you had a rough childhood. I was overweight growing up too and got teased a bit -but not too bad that I remember much of it. I actually only really remember one incident where a boy in my class said something and a boy the year above had a go at him. We worry about my son a bit. He is 8 and not overweight but always seems to want to snack at night – getting into bad habits.

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  • Kids can be SO cruel :(

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  • Very well written article and such great points thanks for sharing

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  • Thank you for your thoughtful and well written article.

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  • Lead by example and try make fitness a family activity.

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  • good read my child is over weight and its so hard trying to get him to stop eating me and my husband are not over weight I don’t get it.

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  • My 15 year old is having a hard time at school due to being overweight and she has no “real” friends due to being overweight or a boyfriend.

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  • Kid can be very cruel. Thanks for this article

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  • Thanks for a great article

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  • Good on you. This is a subject that we really need to address & talk about.
    Modelling healthy eating habits & behaviour is paramount. It wasn’t done with me as a child, so I’m conscious of it myself.

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  • a great article with food for thought. I was amazed when my daughter started school, how conscious about weight some 5 and 6 years old were! They were the prettiest and the slim- est in the class and it was an issue with them at that age. So sad.

    Reply

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