A New York Times health and wellness blog on teens and weight got my attention, because it reported on a study that focused on parents’ and other adults’ (such as teachers or coaches) often well-meaning attempts to “help” overweight children. The study found that parents can “tease” their children about weight, in a misguided attempt to prompt their children to lose weight. Their motives are often out of love, knowing that being overweight is distressing to a child, and also draws bullying from peers. But parents’ methods can create new problems.
Reading about the things parents do that are unintentionally hurtful triggered a memory. My now svelte sister went through a period in her teen years where she was mildly overweight, and I thought I recalled our father “teasing” her about it, so I asked her about it. “Yes, he called me Fatso,” she said. My response was “That’s terrible.” We agreed that Dad meant well, and truly did love her, but his method of connecting–teasing and humor–was hurtful and probably contributed to some later life consequences.
So how can adults help children to attain a healthier lifestyle and weight (surely a worthy goal), without crushing their spirits or even, potentially, contributing to things such as eating disorders? The article, which is worth reading in full, gives a lot of “dont’s” and a few “do’s” from Yale researcher Dr. Rebecca Puhl. One “don’t” in the article is: “Don’t engage in ‘fat talk,’ complaining about weight and appearance, whether it’s your own, your child’s or a celebrity’s. Saying ‘My thighs are so huge!’ teaches your child it’s acceptable to disparage herself and puts way too much emphasis on appearance, says Dr. Puhl.” One “do”: “Focus on health, not weight. ‘Promote a healthy environment for everyone in the home,’ says Dr. Puhl, not just the child who is overweight.”
If you have an overweight son or daughter, and your attempts to help aren’t working, some of the blog’s suggestions might just help.