If you think your child is overweight or too skinny, it’s normal to be concerned especially if you have also struggled with weight problems.
Although your natural tendency will likely be to try to fix it, experts agree that parents often make mistakes that can leave lasting damage on their child’s self-esteem and even make the problem worse.
Whether your child is super skinny, overweight or in the healthy range, the key is pretty simple: Focus on their health, not the scale.
Don’t jump to conclusions.
If you think your child has a weight problem, you should never ignore it but you also don’t want to jump the gun. The only way to know for sure that there’s a problem is to talk to your child’s pediatrician or a pediatric nutritionist who can interpret your child’s growth trends and figure out what is actually normal for him,
“For example, girls in particular tend to gain weight before they grow in height,” said Angela Lemond, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Plano, Texas and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND). “Or your child may have a low BMI, but as long as her height and weight have been consistent, chances are she’s fine.”
Watch your words.
“Kids are extremely sensitive to what their parents say, especially when it comes to weight,” Lemond said.
In fact, a recent study in the journal Body Image found that daughters whose mothers encouraged them to lose weight but didn’t talk about their own weight concerns were more likely to develop disordered eating. Of course, girls had the best outcomes if their mothers didn’t engage in either type of conversation.
Regardless of your child’s weight, never make a comment about it even if you think it’s a compliment.
“If we’re talking about good and bad foods or good and bad body shape or appearance, then that becomes the focus for our kids as well,” said Elizabeth Easton, clinical director of child and adolescent services at the Eating Recovery Center in Denver, Colo.
One of the best ways to help your child focus on health and not weight is to live that way yourself. Make smart choices for yourself and talk to your child about how healthy food makes your body feel or how strong and fit you are to run a marathon, for example.
Make it a family affair.
Living a healthy lifestyle should be a priority for your entire family because
“if one child has the issue, it’s the whole family’s issue,” Lemond said. Try to plan, shop, cook and eat healthy and regular family meals together. Also, find opportunities to move more, like going for a hike or a bike ride.
“If you de-emphasize the weight and do it for all the other benefits, then the weight will take care of itself,” she said.
Just like you, kids can turn to food to cope with their emotions. And although kids can eat in response to anger, anxiety and sadness, boredom is a big one that’s often missed, Easton said. Plus, kids who eat out of boredom can become anxious and overwhelmed and may be at risk for an eating disorder.
If you suspect your kid is an emotional eater, let her express herself without judgment, help her turn her emotions into action and seek professional help if necessary.
Make sleep a priority.
Because of homework, evening activities and electronics, kids are falling short on sleep and missing breakfast, both of which will make them crave calories and overeat. Allow your child get enough sleep by helping him wind down, enforcing a consistent bedtime and setting limits on technology.
Build their self-esteem.
Many parents tend to compliment their children on their abilities, accomplishments and their appearance when what we should be praising are their innate abilities and who they are as people, Easton said. Tell your child that he’s a kind person, helpful or good at solving problems, for example.
Strike a balance.
When it comes to raising your child to have a healthy weight, common sense is key. For example, if your child plays sports several times a week, they’ll need the extra calories. And although exercise is important, they should also take time to relax.
If you suspect that your child is engaging in unhealthy habits like excessive exercising, ask to join her. If she declines, it’s a red flag that she’s doing something that she doesn’t want you to know about but needs your attention, Easton said.
Julie Revelant is a health journalist and a consultant who provides content marketing and copywriting services for the healthcare industry. She's also a mom of two. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com.