Parenting fat kids is a tricky and more common struggle than we like to think. About 17% of kids in the U.S are obese. Also, the CDC confirms how widespread this medical crisis is by saying: “the percentage of children and adolescents affected by obesity has more than tripled since the 1970s.”
In addition to obesity’s many health complications, it also undermines self-confidence in kids. That’s why it needs a stand. But are you liable for having an overweight or obese child? And is there anything you can do to promote your child’s well-being?
In short, genetics, diet, and exercise can all contribute to body weight, and parents hold some responsibility for the latter two. However, there are many tips that can help your kid grow into a confident individual and lifestyle changes that can help with their obesity.
Is Childhood Obesity a Parent’s Fault?
Dr. Julie Lumeng, a pediatrics professor at the University of Michigan, says: “Modern science doesn’t fully understand what causes obesity.” But although we can’t pinpoint the exact causes, we know several factors are at play.
Genetic predisposition is one, and it impacts the child’s metabolism, appetite, and even tendency to exercise. When both children and parents have weight problems, genetics is usually involved. Other factors include diet, exercise, and lifestyle choices, in which a parent’s influence is apparent.
With these factors in mind, we understand the degree of responsibility parents hold. But, at any rate, the result is a child who struggles with their weight, which translates to physical and mental health problems. And the secret to parenting a fat child is addressing both: guiding them to make good choices and supporting them in their journey of self-acceptance.
What Should a Parent Do if Their Child Is Overweight?
Here are some tips to help your child maintain a healthy and normal weight and be confident.
Give Them a Good Role Model
Perhaps the biggest favor you can do for your kid is to have a positive relationship with your body and reframe how you think about food. This is especially important if you’ve struggled with your own weight. No matter what you teach them, children learn by example.
That becomes an issue if you have a negative relationship with your body. By mirroring you, children can develop fraught relationships with food and their bodies. So, in this case, you should seek support and maybe even some therapy to navigate life as a fat adult or a former fat kid.
More so, while you should be honest about how you feel, you should watch how you talk about your body around your kid. Don’t body shame yourself, and avoid indulging in toxic diet culture and trying out every new keto diet. Googling weight loss surgery is also not a good idea. Instead, eating healthy meals and leading an active lifestyle can set a positive example.
If you aren’t confident in your ability to be your kid’s role model at the moment, surround them with trusted people who can, whether that’s a confident fat kid or an adult.
Avoid Shaming and Blaming
It seems like a no-brainer, but many parents cause intense insecurity about their children’s weight by criticizing them. Your child is already being judged by others, so you need to be understanding and supportive.
You might feel that you’re protecting them from bullying by telling them to change their outfit or lose weight, but in doing that, you might become the bully without noticing.
This behavior is counter-productive and unhelpful in solving any health problems. To illustrate, it creates insecurities, instills shame, shifts the blame towards the victim, undermines a child’s trust in their caretaker, and more.
An American Academy of Pediatrics study says: “Contrary to popular belief, parental identification of child overweight is not protective against further weight gain. Rather, it’s associated with more weight gain across childhood.”
But if you can’t comment on your child’s weight, how do you help them? Dr. Stephen Daniels, the co-author of the clinical report “The Role of the Pediatrician in Primary Prevention of Obesity,” points out that the most effective way of correcting a child is by celebrating good behavior and ignoring bad behavior.
By praising their healthy habits and ignoring their unhealthy ones, your kids will be inspired and motivated to reach their healthy weight. And it’ll be their decision, which means they’re more likely to persist in its pursuit.
Feed Them Healthy Meals
You may accidentally help make your kids fat by ordering greasy fast food and feeding them processed food frequently. Healthy eating isn’t everything, but it’s part of the equation.
Ideally, you should prepare healthy foods and make sure the whole family sits down at the dinner table. This way, you aren’t singling out your overweight child but helping them develop positive memories involving food.
And if you’re wondering what foods to serve, the CDC has some tips for you. You should serve fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and avoid sugary drinks. Also, ditch high-fat meats for lean meats, seafood, and poultry.
If they’re thirsty, give your child fat-free/low-fat milk or a smoothie with fat-free/low-fat yogurt instead of a soda or milkshake. Finally, consult your child’s pediatrician about their diet as needed.
Don’t Moralize Food
Although healthy foods are recommended, putting your kid on restrictive diets isn’t. You shouldn’t count their calories or deprive them of snacks. This restriction is unlikely to make a child lose weight; it’ll only make them hungry and help them fantasize about these forbidden foods more. It can also harm the child’s growth, as they need proper nourishment.
Accordingly, you shouldn’t ban certain foods, deeming them as ‘bad’ or ‘indulgent.’ Instead, food should be considered as just food. When it isn’t, this creates guilt and shame for fat kids about their own natural desire to eat. Then, their hunger might cause them to start hiding foods, eating secretly, and developing eating disorders.
We aren’t telling you to satisfy all your child’s food whims. But it’s all about striking a balance by encouraging healthy eating habits and empowering them to have a good relationship with food.
Another way you may be moralizing food is by using it as a reward, such as promising your kid ice cream for eating their broccoli. This behavior reinforces the idea that eating ice cream is enjoyable while eating broccoli is something to be endured.
Limit Screen Time
Medline says: “Most American children spend about 3 hours a day watching TV. Added together, all types of screen time can total 5 to 7 hours a day.” When you’re drained, you might want to let your kids watch TV to get your downtime or finish some tasks.
However, allowing too much TV or iPad use typically increases a child’s weight. And it promotes a sedentary lifestyle, turning kids into fat adults. Not to mention, binging TV calls for snacks. It also doesn’t help that they’re exposed to commercials promoting junk food.
So, try to limit TV to an hour per day and apply the same concept to playing video games. Kids’ overall screen time shouldn’t surpass two hours a day. This rule will urge them to find healthier activities.
Promote Physical Activity
When you pair healthy foods with physical activity, you create a lifestyle that helps with losing weight and enhances your child’s health. However, remember that exercise alone won’t prevent weight problems since children can consume much more calories than they burn.
But how do you get a child to exercise? Ideally, you should encourage kids’ interests and let them try out different sports. If they resist joining a sports team or going to their martial arts or dance class, don’t push it. Forcing these activities on them will reaffirm that physical activity is a form of punishment. So, instead, let them choose activities that they enjoy.
Another idea is to establish family exercise activities. When it’s a family activity, kids will feel encouraged and comfortable. Plus, it’s more fun this way, isn’t it? You can try archery; Minneapolis has some of the best archery ranges. Also, there are many ways to spend a day out in the Twin Cities, from going to the park to exploring the Mississippi River.
Be Mindful of Fat People’s Media Representation
Mainstream media lacks sufficient representation of fat people. Even worse, when they’re depicted, they’re usually portrayed in a negative light.
This depiction solidifies harmful stereotypes and sends wrong messages to children that fat means villainous, lazy, stupid, and so on. Unfortunately, a fat kid might internalize those ideas, growing up with low self-esteem.
You should handle such representation by pointing it out and starting meaningful conversations about body positivity and weight diversity. Also, you should give your kids access to media where they can see fat children and adults depicted positively. The positive representation can help your children feel confident in their bodies.
Start Conversations About Body-Related Issues
Whether you have fat children, thin children, or both, talking about body weight is crucial. A child’s fat body can have them comparing themselves to other children. These comparisons will make them criticize themselves and leave them dissatisfied with their own body.
However, teaching children about body diversity can change that. When fat children learn that there’s a plethora of body sizes and shapes, all worthy of love, they can appreciate their body size rather than compare it to other people’s bodies.
Other topics you should consider discussing are fatphobia and weight bias. A higher-weight child personally experiences those forms of discrimination, so you should urge them to open up about them.
Ensure that your kids view this discrimination as unjust and unpardonable so that they don’t internalize it. Also, you must practice what you preach by calling out fatphobia in media and in person (even if it’s a family member) and advocating for body liberation.
It’s worth noting that you should do the same with skinny children. Kids notice body diversity early on, and it triggers their curiosity. So, don’t silence them when they ask: “how is that person fat?”. Instead, explain that people come in all shapes and sizes, a difference worth celebrating.
Also, they need to be aware of fat people’s ill-treatment. These conversations will have you bringing up little activists. This way, your kids will learn to call out fatphobic behavior and fight it.
Allow Kids to Trust Their Hunger
Kids have inherent body trust. They trust their normal cues and act upon them until they get taught not to. So when others doubt how hungry they are or tell them they’re bored or thirsty, these comments undermine their trust in their bodies.
Slowly, the child learns not to trust the feeling of hunger and to push it down, which causes a breach in their relationship with their bodies. After ignoring the natural cues of hunger long enough, they’ll stop getting them. But the loss of appetite isn’t the same as not needing food, which is where the disorderly eating comes in.
Love Your Child Unconditionally
It’s as important for your child to grow up in a loving environment as it is to grow up with a healthy weight. Your support, love, and judgment-free space will give you a happy child even if they remain fat.
So, don’t get caught up trying to change them for the better so much that you forget to accept and love them as is. Get your little girl a pretty dress in her size; don’t get her a size small for when she’s lost weight. Let your little boy have ice cream without having to earn it by burning calories. When you love them as they are, kids learn to love themselves.
Overall, raising a fat child is a multi-faceted topic. You want to address the related health concerns by guiding your child to eat healthily, move their body, and choose an overall healthy lifestyle. But it’d be best if you made it their choice by praising their healthy habits and ignoring their unhealthy ones.
Also, you want to be mindful of the self-esteem issues that often come with being fat. Empower your kids to love themselves and their bodies by surrounding them with role models, being a role model yourself, and having conversations about body weight.
Parenting an obese child may not be easy, but you have all the tools to be the parent your little one needs!