Navigating the Weight Loss Conversation with Your Child
Approaching the subject of weight loss at any age is not easy, but it’s even more difficult when the subject must be discussed with children. Bayhealth Licensed Clinical Social Worker Alexis Lelito who cares for teens in the Bayhealth Smyrna High School Wellness Center offers insight on how to approach the subject without causing emotional harm. Parents are advised to speak to their child’s pediatrician before having conversations about weight loss or weight management.
Lelito says that first and foremost, the most important thing to remember is teaching your child to love their body is key. “If they love their body, it’s far more likely that they will be inclined to care for it.”
Here are five stages that childrens’ minds may go through when processing the topic of weight loss. Lelito shares how parents and children can have meaningful conversations through each stage.
Stage 1: Pre-contemplation
In this stage, it’s common for youth to think they don’t have a problem, and the problem is the parent’s problem.
This stage can take a lot of collaboration and listening from both parent and child. In this stage, it’s important to have open conversations. “When addressing any sensitive topic, like this one, treating it like a sandwich is extremely helpful,” says Lelito. Start with a warm and fuzzy compliment, insert the tough topic, and follow up with another warm and fuzzy compliment.
If you’re looking for a more subtle way to approach the topic, relating healthy eating to a healthy mind is a great option. Discussing mental health with your child will most likely be easier than talking about physical health, as it is something that is commonly talked about in schools and shared in media.
Lelito says that a parent can start a conversation by saying something like, “I read today that anxiety really takes a toll on your body. I didn’t know that.” This will give your child the chance to talk about the topic and maybe offer some insights they’ve learned. Parents should keep them engaged by asking questions and letting the child lead the conversation.
Stage 2: Contemplation
During this stage, children may have thoughts like, “I think I may have a problem.” When these thoughts start surfacing, there may still be something holding them back from making changes. “This is a good time to ask questions and get them thinking,” says Lelito. “Ask questions like, ‘Did you have any questions on what eating healthier could look like?’.” It’s important that no blame is placed on the child during these conversations to avoid potential harm and them responding by putting up an emotional block.
Stage 3: Preparation
In this stage, your child will realize they do have a problem and will make a commitment to overcome the problem. Lelito recommends asking the child what they plan to do. It may make them more committed to the plan. Parents should also be involved in the process and show their support. Children should feel encouraged about taking that first step toward positive change.
Stage 4: Action
When this stage is reached, it’s important to offer encouragement during the process and help instill the correct mindset in children. “Maintaining the focus on what the child is doing versus what they aren’t doing will help them stay motivated, even if they aren’t seeing the instant results they most likely want,” says Lelito. It may be helpful for the child to keep a photo or video of where they started so they can see their progress over time.
Parents can set good examples for their children in this stage by preparing healthy meals, exercising with their child, and engaging in positive conversations about your bodies.
Stage 5: Maintenance
After a year of sustained change comes the maintenance phase. During this phase most big goals have been met and it can be easy to fall into the trap of feeling like changes aren’t happening. In order to combat this mentality, Lelito recommends focusing on little goals and celebrating little wins. “Not every goal is going to be monumental but maintaining that one big goal is an accomplishment in and of itself.”
Overall, it’s most important to let your child know that they are more than their looks. Instead of telling your daughter that she’s “pretty,” specifically compliment the way she puts together a great outfit, or the artistic way she applied makeup. Complimenting weight loss using “healthy” as opposed to “skinny” can make a difference in maintaining steady trust and support. The topic of weight loss will never be an easy one to discuss, but when your intentions are good and you’ve done your homework on the best way to approach the subject, your child will know you’re coming from a place of love and respect.
To find a pediatrician or family medicine physician to support you and your child in conversations like these, visit Bayhealth.org/Find-A-Doc or call 1-866-BAY-DOCS.