How to Confront a Child About Their Obesity

Three Methods:Doing No HarmImproving Their Physical HealthImproving Their Emotional Health

Many parents worry about their children's health, especially if that child is obese. It can be tempting to throw out all the junk food and start a strict diet and exercise regimen. However, you don't have to become a dictator in order to help your child. Here is how to support your child's health, both physical and emotional, to help them be their very best.

Method 1
Doing No Harm

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    Do not tell them that their bodies are bad. If they feel ashamed of their bodies, they may start to hate them, and not want to take good care of them. A healthy relationship with one's body should not involve hatred or shame.
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    Do not scare them with dire health warnings. If you tell them that they are going to get diabetes, be incredibly sick, or die, you could end up with a terrified child. Living in constant fear of a horrible future isn't good for your child's emotional health.
    • You don't know what their health will be like in the future. Don't try to make predictions.
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    Never criticize your child's weight or size. Studies show that people who get fat shamed end up getting fatter, suggesting that this change involved depression, emotional eating, poor self-esteem, increased stress, and avoidance of exercise.[1] Criticism won't make your child healthier.
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    Measure progress in terms of healthy habits, not numbers on a scale.[2] If your child learns that "lower weight always is good," this may pave the way for dangerous eating disorders such as anorexia. Instead, praise your child for the things they do: eating a healthy snack, going swimming with their sister, or spending lots of time playing outside. This encourages them to keep doing these healthy things.
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    Don't describe foods as "good" or "bad." Placing value judgments on food can give children an unhealthy relationship with eating. Instead, emphasize balancing a diet, and controlling portions of fattier foods to a moderate amount.
    • To encourage healthy eating, explain how they benefit from a certain type of food, such as "fish are good for your brain" or "eating enough protein helps you grow tall and strong."
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    Keep rules consistent among family members. If your obese child doesn't ever get dessert, while his naturally thinner sister can eat as many cookies as she wants, this is unfair to both children. Any health initiatives should be taken together, as a family, and should apply equally to everyone.
    • Avoid imposing too many rules too quickly. This can cause children to rebel. Instead, focus on introducing new changes one at a time, at a pace that feels relaxed and not like a punishment.[3]
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    Avoid yo-yo dieting or self criticism, especially in front of your child. Following trendy diets or hating on your body is unlikely to help you, and it can warp your child's ideas about healthy eating.[4] Instead of signing up for the latest fad diet or complaining about the size of your thighs, try making small lifestyle adjustments, such as the ones in the next section.
    • It's okay for your child to see you enjoying a controlled portion of dessert.
    • Worry less about the size and shape of your body, and instead focus on treating it well through healthy eating and exercising habits.

Method 2
Improving Their Physical Health

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    Be a role model. Children copy what they see, so if they notice you adopting healthier habits, they're likely to try it out for themselves too. Start doing any new thing that you want your child(ren) to do, and after they see you doing it for a few times, they're likely to try it out for themselves.
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    Buy healthy, easy-to-eat snacks. Stock your pantry and fridge with nuts, berries, string cheese, applesauce, fruit cups with 100% juice, and other snacks that are healthy and easy to grab.
    • Keep bowls of fruit in the fridge, so people can grab some when hungry.
    • Buy less cookies, chips, etc. These should be treats, not frequent snacks, for all family members.
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    Teach about intuitive eating. Intuitive eating means eating when you are hungry, not eating when you are full, and listening to what cravings are telling you. Encourage your child to listen to their stomach.[5][6]
    • When considering a second helping, people should pause and listen to their stomach. You can model this out loud, such as "I'm thinking about whether I should have more. My stomach still feels a little bit hungry. So I should have a little bit more, and be done once I'm full" or "I don't feel hungry for everything on my plate. So, I'll put the rest in the fridge, and eat it later when I'm hungry."
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    Make kid-friendly healthy meals. Your own choices will affect your child's health, so work on making healthy meals, and keep the takeout and restaurant food to a minimum.
    • If you are a very busy parent, you can buy frozen healthy meals to heat up for your child, such as Lean Cuisine. Find out your child's favorites among these.
    • If it is not enough calories for your child, encourage them to supplement with a healthy snack, or a small dessert.
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    Eat together as a family. Your entire family will benefit from enjoying at least one meal per day together, where you can talk and eat without distraction. # Control dessert sizes. Children of all ages and sizes can enjoy a reasonable amount of dessert. Try serving your child to ensure that they are eating a moderate amount. Or, if your child is serving themselves, ask "What's a good amount of cookies?" and let them consider it.
    • If your child is still hungry afterwards, explain that that's enough cookies/ice cream/cake, show them the healthy snack options, and ask what sounds best to them.
    • Try desserts that incorporate fruits, such as banana splits, berries with whipped cream, or strawberries dipped in chocolate sauce.
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    Limit screen time. While there's nothing wrong with learning on the internet or playing a game to relax, you don't want your child spending most of their childhood in front of a screen. Make screens one aspect of an active, balanced life. Try to limit eating in front of screens.
    • If your child is going to eat in front of a screen, give them a controlled portion of food (e.g. a medium-sized bowl of chips, not a big bag of chips). This way, they can't accidentally eat too much. If they really are hungry, they'll have to stop and get up in order to get more.
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    Take walks with your child. This is a low-stress activity, and offers an opportunity for you to give your child some positive attention. Let your child choose when to turn around; you will probably start small and build up to longer and longer distances.[7]
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    Make sports a family activity. Get a basketball hoop or volleyball net if you can, and have some balls available to toss around at any time. Say "I'm going for a walk" or "I'm going to shoot some hoops" and ask who wants to join you. Your child(ren) should have lots of opportunities to exercise in fun, relaxed ways.
    • Some children enjoy competing, while others find it makes sports stressful. Non-competitive sports may be a lot more fun for an obese child, so consider having your family not keep score.
    • Non-sports exercise activities can include dancing and playing with pets.
    • Keep the atmosphere positive and non-critical, so your child associates exercise with having fun.
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    Offer to sign your child up for physical activity. Some children blossom in organized sports. Consider volleyball, soccer, basketball, swimming classes, et cetera. Others may fear public humiliation, and would be better off without it.[8] If your child says yes, see how it goes.
    • Obese children may get bullied or excluded in sports, which can damage their mental health, and make them start hating exercise. Check up on them to see if they are enjoying the sport. If they don't, talk about why, and allow them to quit if they want to. They can exercise at home, where they won't be criticized for it.
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    Focus on progress, not perfection. Your family doesn't have to transform to a family of health nuts overnight. Instead, work on making changes in routines that benefit everyone. It's okay to have bad days, and eating one fast food meal won't make everyone become mortally ill. If you're getting exercise together on 40% of the days instead of 20%, that's a victory. Your goal isn't to be perfect, just better.
    • Focus on realistic goals, such as eating a fruit or vegetable with every meal, or substituting soda with water or 100% fruit juice.[9]
    • Try asking each of your children to set a health goal that feels reasonable to them.

Method 3
Improving Their Emotional Health

Strong self esteem is critical for helping obese children become healthier.[10]

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    Spend lots of time with your child. One-on-one time is important, and your child will feel loved and supported if they can spend time with you every day.
    • If you're too busy one day, try making up for it with extra time on the next day or the weekend.
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    Emphasize all the great things their body can do. Compliment your child on their skill with soccer, swimming, or running. Try to expose them to pictures of overweight and obese kids having fun exercising. This will make them feel more positively about exercise, and want to do it more.
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    Help your child love their body. Tell them that they have beautiful eyes, strong arms, or an adorable smile. Treat their body as a wonderful part of them, not a burden. If they love their body, this can motivate them to take good care of it.
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    Help arm your child against bullies. Obese children are likely to be bullied. Explain that bullying is wrong, and is the fault of the bully for choosing to be mean. Teach them the phrase "I'm okay, they're mean" to repeat to themselves if the bullies are getting into their heads.
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    Watch for obsessing over weight and food.[11] Children of all sizes can develop eating disorders, and this is dangerous at any weight. Watch for...
    • Secretiveness about eating
    • Calorie counting
    • Over-exercising
    • Fad dieting, especially for a "quick fix"
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    Help your child feel beautiful. Limit exposure to media, which only defines a very narrow percent of the population as "beautiful." Help them choose well-fitting clothes that they like to wear, so they can feel good about how they look when they leave the house.[12] Tell them that people of all sizes can be attractive, and that your size and physique don't determine how awesome you are.
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    Praise your child. Tell them things that they did well, related to their health, talents, personality, interests, et cetera. Make it clear how much you love them and are proud of the good choices they make every day.


  • Remember the power of good role models. If your child sees you making healthy choices, they are likely to imitate you.


  • Obese children may be at risk for eating disorders or depression. Know the signs, and take action right away if your child develops a mental health disorder.

Article Info

Categories: Childhood Health | Parenting