How to Talk to Your Children About Their Weight: Very Carefully

Thank you to Nemours Specialty Care for sponsoring this post and sharing tips on how to help families take a healthy approach to the season.

Although we enjoy the tasty turkey and festive cheer, the holidays can still be stressful. You are likely to spend time with people who you don’t normally interact with and, family or not, some of those situations cause stress which triggers anxiety. We encourage you to use this time to check in with yourself and your family as you navigate the holiday season. With each celebration, the social norm lends to dinner parties and extra treats. Combined with triggered anxiety, it’s also a time where disordered eating may present itself.

Eating disorders have little to do with food. Controlling how someone eats can be an expression of an underlying problem. The stereotype is that people with eating issues struggle as a means to try and “look good.” While it may start with looks, the truth is emotional issues exist and these issues are easily triggered with added social pressures and disrupted schedules during the holiday season.

Tara Collingwood has served as the team dietitian for the Orlando Magic and as a nutrition consultant to the UCF Athletic Department and the United States Tennis Association. Tara works closely with Nemours and serves as an expert nutritionist working with families to help guide their nutritional habits in a healthy direction.

“Food is very emotional. Weight is very emotional. It’s not simple, it gets into a lot of deep-rooted issues that may come from childhood,” Tara explains.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 20 million women and 10 million men will suffer from eating disorders at some point in their lifetime.

“Our kids are at high risk because of social media. On Instagram everyone looks perfect, but often people don’t realize that those images are manipulated with filters and editing. And if we don’t realize this, our kids do not either. They’re exposed to a vast array of body images not knowing that isn’t how people really look,” Tara says.

Understanding the “misinformation” our kids may be receiving from the internet combined with heightened emotions during the holiday season, how can we as parents identify if our children are at risk for disordered eating?

One red flag is if you notice your son or daughter avoids foods they normally love. Trust your gut, you know your child best! If they’ve loved something in the past and suddenly start cutting out whole food groups (think a major shift into being a vegetarian, no longer eating gluten) it’s important to ask why are they doing this. While exploration is normal, no dietary changes should be used as an excuse not to eat.

It’s also important to pay attention to your child’s narrative regarding their appearance. Does your child comment about hating the way they look or wanting to change it?

Listen to their comments, pay attention and be aware as to what they are looking at and reading online. Also, pay attention to their dialogue with friends. What are they doing for fun? Is there an emphasis on being the thinnest, or the strongest? This at-risk behavior may signal it’s time to address healthy eating with your child.

So what should parents do in order to maintain a healthy nutrition culture for their kids and families as a whole? The number one proactive behavior we can exhibit for any age is to be good role models.

It’s just as important to show your kids healthy relationships with food as it is to talk about it with them. Do you often skip the pizza at family night and eat only the salad? If Mom or Dad is always eating diet food and avoiding pizza and french fries and ice cream with kids, your littles will notice. It can lead to the creation of a diet mindset in the household.

Girls will often role model their mother, so be aware of your narrative as well. Avoid regular conversation starters like, “Does this make me look fat?” It’s very common to always comment on our bodies as adults. In doing so we may unintentionally condition our children to question their own appearance in the same ways. And that inner dialogue can last a lifetime.

As a parent, if you aren’t completely comfortable with your body, be careful not to let that be a focus in front of your children. Reserve those “adult” thoughts and feelings for a peer or good friend. If you realize you are struggling with body image and food philosophies, consider consulting a health professional who can help you learn how to tackle those issues as well as manage within your household so as to avoid any widespread, negative effects.

What you can do

How should parents approach the topic of weight and body issues if they see disordered eating red flags in their children?

Tara advises parents, “Probe without accusing. Ask your child why they want to make changes in their eating behaviors. Give space for trying new things, but if you start to see their choices present negatively — like using it as an excuse not to eat — go see a professional to try and figure out a healthy way to go about righting the ship.”

Lesson learned: Help make it a happy holiday season by practicing healthy eating habits at home. And it starts with you! Lead by example with positive body image dialogue. Make sure you and your children eat a balanced diet. Finally, start and end the year with mindful and tasty festivities, and if you see something of concern in your home be open to resources for your children as well as yourself.

Want to learn more?

Please visit the Nemours nutrition page or EatRight.org for resources and additional information. Nemours Children’s Specialty Care is a leading outpatient pediatric specialty practice with three locations in Northeast Florida — Fleming Island, Jacksonville South at Old St. Augustine Road, and our flagship location in Jacksonville’s San Marco neighborhood. Our experts treat children in a wide range of specialty areas including ear, nose and throat, ophthalmology, orthopedics and sports medicine, and much more. For more information, please visit Nemours.org.

About the Author

Tara Collingwood has served as the team dietitian for the Orlando Magic and as a nutrition consultant to the UCF Athletic Department and the United States Tennis Association. Tara works closely with Nemours and serves as an expert nutritionist working with families to help guide their nutritional habits in a healthy direction.

 

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