The obesity epidemic among American kids is not news, and although increased nutritional education, improved school cafeteria options and the addition of physical activity programs have had a positive influence, the problem is still real for one third of U.S. children who are considered overweight or obese. While weight issues often impact an entire family, sometimes only one person is affected. For a child who struggles with weight in a family where everyone else does not, life can be particularly difficult. How can parents help kids in this unique situation?
Reasons for childhood obesity
Childhood obesity is influenced by genetic, environmental and developmental factors, so teasing out the “cause” can be complicated. Some severe genetic disorders resulting in obesity do exist, but these are accompanied by other unhealthy signs and symptoms not seen in the majority of overweight children. These severe genetic disorders are rare, but smaller genetic influences (waiting to be discovered) may be contributing to the overall obesity epidemic in the general population. For most children, lifestyle (diet and exercise) plays the largest role in influencing weight.
If you find that only one child in your home struggles with their weight, see a doctor to make sure that an underlying health condition such as hypothyroidism, Cushing’s Disease or a genetic syndrome is not the cause. In most cases, an underlying diagnosis will not exist, but ruling this out will guide how you approach the situation. It may simply be that your child has a genetic predisposition to gain weight more easily than the other children in your home.
Talking with your overweight child
Dr. Gregory Ramey, PhD, Clinical Child Psychologist at Dayton Children’s Hospital encourages parents to acknowledge their child’s weight issue early on, and not assume the problem is one they will simply “grow out of.” Getting a handle on a weight problem is much easier at the age of 3 than at 13. Make the focus of your conversation less on weight and more on how to develop healthy habits, and always talk with your child in a respectful manner. In some situations, it may be helpful to talk with other siblings about the struggles your overweight child is experiencing if you feel they would be supportive.
Making necessary changes
Although gulping down a 12-ounce Coke with a Big Mac and fries may not result in a bump on the scale for every other member in your family, your overweight child does not have this luxury. Even though your waistline may not show the evidence of your poor diet, your internal organs know the difference! Make healthy dietary changes as an entire family will improve everyone’s health – and avoid making your heavy child feel singled out. If your family already sticks to a routinely healthy diet, then adjusting portion sizes for your overweight child may be the key to losing weight. A “clean your plate” mentality should be abandoned. Cutting out sugary beverages (including juice and chocolate milk) can also be a simple way to shave off a few excess calories.
Dr. Ramey says that some children overeat to deal with anger, anxiety or boredom. Try having your child replace comfort eating with physical activity. Decrease screen time and encourage your child to play outside or find a sport they find enjoyable. Make exercise a family affair by going for walks, riding bikes or doing any other type of activity that gets everyone moving. Your willingness to exercise as a group demonstrates to your child that you are all in this together.
Getting your child down to an appropriate weight can be a challenge, but by making a healthy lifestyle a goal for the entire family, your child will feel supported and less alone in the process. Set reasonable goals and expect some setbacks, but keep your eye on the prize of helping your child achieve a healthy body that can take them wherever they may want to go.