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Now What?: “Your child is obese.”

Now What? is a new blog series designed to address specific issues related to coping with life’s challenges.

Recently, two close friends separately confided in me that one of her children had been labeled “obese” by the family GP.  Both friends were worried, if not totally surprised by the news.  And both seemed highly ambivalent about what to do next – How much does he need to know?  What should I say or not say?  I don’t want to give her a complex!

Hesitation is common for parents because talking with kids about eating and weight feels uncomfortable.  We feel afraid to talk about weight because we are afraid of making the situation worse.  Or we are afraid that by talking about the need to change harmful habits our child will begin to feel bad about herself.  Or, quite possibly, we just don’t know what to say.

As a parent, I understand how tricky it can be to figure out the best way to address tough topics with kids.  Let me reassure you – you don’t have to have all the answers, you just have to do something (rather than nothing, hoping the problem takes care of itself).  Below are the basics.  Adjust them according to your particular child’s age and maturity level.

Talk with your kids.  Just like substance use, safe sex, and even suicide, setting aside a time to talk about a sensitive subject like weight isn’t going to “give” your kids anything but factual information delivered in a supportive and nonjudgmental space. 

Parents need to take the lead in bringing to light any issue that might otherwise be passively accepted as “unspeakable” in a family.  Not talking about weight – or any other uncomfortable topic – could create a sense of secrecy or shame for your child.  Or, he may seek information elsewhere (friends, websites) and begin to form inaccurate or damaging beliefs.

During this discussion, make sure you reinforce your unconditional love and acceptance of your child – no matter what he weighs.  Kids look to their parents for reassurance about how to feel about themselves.  Stick to talking about changing specific behaviors rather than global personal flaws or failures.

Listen to their concerns. Chances are your child is already aware that he has a weight issue.  Creating a space for sharing your thoughts can offer him the opportunity to bring any concerns that until now he has kept private.  Try to listen and empathize without rushing to problem solve.  Stay with any feelings that he brings up – no matter how uncomfortable you feel – for as long as possible.

Frame the struggle.  If you can normalize weight gain as a larger social issue that many, many people deal with on a daily basis, your child will begin to understand that his weight gain is nothing personal.  Seek out workshops or classes in your area (often paid in part by health insurance) that bring lots of families together for skill building and fun.

Work together as a team.  No matter the size of your family at home, you can make getting healthy a fun group project.  Resources abound online for how to do this – do some research and incorporate the ideas that will work for your family.  Keep the focus on improving everyone’s overall health, not just losing weight.

Cynthia Ransley, MA, TLLPCynthia Ransley, MA, LLP is Social Media Copywriter for MSP.