HEALTHY LIVING

This Is The Worst Way To Talk To Your Children About Weight

It always backfires.

28/06/2016 6:34 AM AEST | Updated 28/06/2016 7:31 AM AEST
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A recent article about the link between parents’ weight comments and a child’s body dissatisfaction and weight gain sparked a major debate among The Huffington Post readers. Disagreement centered over the balance between concern for a child’s health and the psychological and physical damage that can result from cruel or clueless comments about weight.

Readers wrote to us on Facebook and over email to give us their two cents on the issue, with comments ranged from impassioned pleas for parents to stop giving their children complexes about weight to outrage that scientists appeared to be endorsing “silence” in the face of a growing childhood obesity epidemic.

But beyond the false dichotomy of having to choose between complete silence on the issue of health and callous, hurtful comments on weight, one theme kept popping up over and over again in readers’ comments: People who had been hurt in childhood by cruel weight comments are now resolved to spare their own children from the self-loathing and disordered eating struggles that they had to deal with as kids.

The toll of parents' weight comments

Lori Gomez, a 30-year-old mom from Atlanta, Georgia, developed a serious eating disorder at the tender age of 11 after her mother took her to a Weight Watchers meeting. Because of what she’s gone through, Gomez doesn’t think she will ever feel comfortable being naked around her spouse. But as a mother to two girls, she is very careful and intentional about the way the family discusses bodies.

"I try to tell both girls that they are beautiful and perfect just as they are,” Gomez said. "I can honestly say that I have no memory of my mom ever looking at me as a child and saying, 'You're just perfect.' Maybe if she had, my self-esteem wouldn't be so terrible."

I can honestly say that I have no memory of my mom ever looking at me as a child and saying, 'You're just perfect.' Maybe if she had, my self-esteem wouldn't be so terrible.

Farah Benero, a 39-year-old reader in San Juan, Puerto Rico, remembers that her mother constantly compared her to her slim sister, dangling privileges and special gifts in an attempt to motivate her to lose weight throughout her childhood. When she moved out of her parents’ house, the freedom she felt after finally escaping her mother’s constant criticism devolved into an unchecked and unhealthy love affair with food and drink that caused the 5’2 Benero to grow to over 200 pounds.

"I remember [seeing] old pictures of me and realizing how beautiful I was, what a gorgeous body I had,” she recalled. "I was the textbook definition of a Puerto Rican woman -- petite in height yet curves all over. And I asked myself, why was it that my mom never saw me as such?"

It wasn’t until Benero was 38 years old, when she fell in love with yoga, that she began to truly love her body. Now, as the mother of two boys, she is determined to make sure it doesn’t take as long for them to appreciate their own bodies.

"I am constantly trying to not make the same mistakes with my boys,” she said.

Experts: 'Make your house a sanctuary from weight-related pressures' 

Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, a researcher who focuses on teen health and nutrition and author of the book I'm, Like, SO Fat!: Helping Your Teen Make Healthy Choices about Eating and Exercise in a Weight-Obsessed World, has found -- as has other research -- that parents who think they’re “helping” their child with taunts about weight are going to find that the strategy will likely backfire.

One of her studies found that teasing about weight puts overweight youth at an increased risk for even more weight gain, and that hurtful weight-related comments from family members in particular are linked to disordered eating in young adults. 

That’s why Neumark-Sztainer advises parents to make the home a sanctuary where children are safe from weight-related pressures, mockery and teasing. Children are bombarded with negative messages about weight and health from peers, schools and society at large, she explains, and they need to know they have a safe place to turn when someone hurts them.

"We do want to be available to support our children who are the victims of weight-based discrimination,” she said. "Our children need to know that they can tell us what happened without receiving advice on how to lose weight."

Unfortunately, that advice comes too late for people like LeeAnn Dickson, a 61-year-old HuffPost reader from Roseville, California. She wrote that while she had never been obese, she was bigger than her mother thought she should be. Dickson said her mother had no problem using shame, denial and mockery to motivate her to lose weight.

“This was her mantra,” Dickson wrote. “'There are three sexes, LeeAnn: girls, boys and fat girls. You don’t want to be a fat girl, do you?'”

In addition to refusing to buy Dickson new clothes for her growing body, her mother also encouraged Dickson’s brother to tease her about her weight. One particularly hurtful comment she remembers was made when the family was on a road trip, 100 miles away from home.

“If you walked home, you would be thin by the time you got there,” her brother said to her. Dickson remembers that he laughed, she cried, and their mother agreed with him. Dickson wavers between a size 8 and a size 10 -- several sizes smaller than the average American dress size -- but says that when she looks in the mirror, she will always see "a huge woman where none exists.” 

Our children need to know that they can tell us what happened without receiving advice on how to lose weight.

So what should you do if you're worried about a child's weight? 

Like other experts on child and teen nutrition, Neumark-Sztainer wants parents to know that the best way to help children have a positive perspective on their bodies and a healthy relationship with food and exercise is to model healthy choices -- and this goes for both normal weight kids and overweight kids. 

“In general, the research suggests that what we do is most important, followed by what we say, and lastly what we think,” said Neumark-Sztainer. "For example, if I serve nutritious foods at home, and if we eat family meals, my children are likely to have more nutritious dietary intakes.”

Other tips include making fruits and vegetables easily accessible at home and integrating physical activity into normal family rhythms. Avoid diets for children, as Neumark-Sztainer's research shows that encouraging kids to diet predicts weight gain over time

As for how to talk about weight, one simple way to avoid pitfalls is for parents to at least recognize that their own body image issues may be at play in how they approach their children’s health.

"While getting dressed to go out, avoid making negative comments about your own weight,” she said. "Ideally, it would be great for parents to resolve their own body image issues, but this can be more challenging.

"This is not to say that we should never talk about weight, but rather to do so minimally and only within the context of health."

HuffPost reader Kelly England McElwain, 48, from Lexington, South Carolina, offers a particularly instructive example. As a child, she encountered mixed messages about weight when her mother instructed her to say “no” to dessert -- while letting McElwain's’ brothers eat as much as they wanted.

But as the mother of teen girls, she focuses on teaching them to make their bodies strong enough to do what they want to do -- and emphasizes a healthy eating pattern to help their bodies age well. Her daughters’ doctor also played a role in teaching them about the importance of a positive body image.

"My daughters' pediatrician helped by teaching them, 'I am your doctor. I'm the ONLY PERSON who should talk to you about your weight,'” she wrote in a Facebook thread. "'I am here to keep you healthy and strong, and I want you to tune out any messages you get from social media, friends, and celebrities.'"

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