In the height of my disordered body image and behaviour days I used to look at chubby kids and get angry. How could parents let their kids get to that point? Why don’t they just restrict what they serve them to eat? “It’s abuse” I would say in my head.
I had so much anger because I saw the future that lay ahead for them. Being picked last in gym class, dressing room tears, social rejection and the never-ending search for the approval of others.
But as I’ve come to challenge the distorted views and perspectives I’ve held for nearly 2 decades, I came to realize that none of my negative childhood experiences stemmed directly from the fact that I had excess fat on my body. It’s not like for every square inch of adipose tissue, you gain one childhood trauma point.
Instead, the “trauma” comes from the experience of growing up in a world that doesn’t see past the way your body is shaped and from being surrounded by people endlessly looking for ways to change you.
With that said, I am not a doctor, I am not a therapist, I am not even a parent. However, I believe I have insight to offer those who may find themselves in the difficult position of having a child in their life who fits into the societal “box” of overweight, obese, unhealthy, chubby and/or “big boned.”
To start, I wholeheartedly understand you only want the best for them. Maybe medical professionals have told you your kid needs to eat more nutritiously or need to increase daily activity because they are at risk for health complications. That’s perfectly fine, but first…
Put yourself in their shoes
How would you feel if you were told you needed to change everything about how you live your life in order to be accepted by society at the ripe age of 8? Or 12? Or 5? Especially, when up until that point, your life has been entirely determined by the adults and situations surrounding you.
Think about their environment and what role models they have in their life. Is there something stressful occurring in the child’s life? Did you move cities or countries? Did they lose a loved one? Are they being bullied? Are they latch-key kids living with no boundaries? Did they grow up with a relative who would feed them as a way to show affection and love? (shout out to all the grandmas out there)
There are a million and one reasons that may influence a child to gain weight. None of which are their fault or your fault. Life doesn’t come with a rulebook and we only really have control over how we react to the hands we are dealt.
Once you have spent some time trying to understand what is at play, step one is to…
Do your own homework
As a parent or significant adult figure in a child’s life, you are their world. They watch everything you do, listen to everything you say and mimick how you react and behave.
They hear you complain about not fitting into your jeans from last year, they see you pinching your fat, they know why you skip dessert and avoid carbs. They also notice the way you talk about your neighbour who “looks fantastic” since her gastric bypass or the aunt that “let herself go” since starting that new job.
Many parents don’t intentionally put their children down or straight up call them fat (some do). However, if you do not address the way diet culture influences YOUR thoughts and behaviours you’re unfortunately sending clear messages to your child about what you think about them and others who look like them.
So do your homework. Spend quality time challenging YOUR ingrained beliefs and understand that if you want to set your child up for success that includes unapologetically standing up for them in a world that is already out to get them.
…this means never:
Weighing them, talking about body weight numbers or how much weight you or they or anyone needs to lose.
Demonizing calories, food groups, fats and carbs. Educating on nutrition is telling a child that the protein in food gives us building blocks for muscle and carbs gives us energy to run around and play. Educating on nutrition is NOT giving them strict restrictions and explaining calorie deficits.
Commenting about eating behaviours during mealtimes or at social functions. It is absolutely humiliating and creates anxiety around mealtimes and in social settings. (ex. don’t you think you’ve had enough, you don’t need another serving, don’t cry to me about your weight after etc)
Getting annoyed or upset that they don’t fit into clothes anymore. Bodies change, life circumstances change, access to food changes. Your clothes are meant to fit your current body and if they don’t it just means you need different clothes at this time. Children are not to be shamed or made to feel guilty for changes out of their control. period.
Congratulating weight loss. You may notice that after signing up for a sport and after becoming more open to healthier foods your child does indeed lose weight. Do not celebrate the weight loss. Say “I’ve noticed how much better you’re getting at swimming because of all that practicing,” not, “I’ve noticed since you started swimming regularly you’ve really slimmed down.”
Suggesting that exercise and healthy eating is done with the goal of maintaining a body weight, size, shape etc. We eat healthy and exercise to be mentally and physically well. It gives us energy, helps boost our mood and sleep. It does not serve the purpose of making us deserving of dessert, carbs or a second helping of food.
Promoting limiting beliefs about the potential of larger bodies. In plain English, suggesting that you have to look a certain way to find love, have a successful career or pursue a certain hobby. Society will already do their fair share of promoting this, it just doesn’t need to come from the home as well.
So what now?
So you’ve decided to take a more understanding approach to all this, but where does that leave you? You still want to make sure your kid(s) grow up physically and mentally well and that may require some lifestyle changes after all.
- Choose forms of physical activity they find fun and with low barriers to entry.
As tempting it might be to tell little Johnny he should try out for the school soccer team, if he makes the team but can’t keep up, the kids and coaches are going to be mean, and if he doesn’t make the team it will deter him from every wanting to play organized sports.
Try individual and non-competitive activities first. Promoting activity in the beginning can really be as simple as dedicating time to go on an evening walk with them.
- Model healthy behaviours
Seeing you prioritize exercise and getting strong for the sake of gaining physical fitness and not for the sake of losing weight will instill in them that it is something to be valued in life. Parents who exercise raise children who exercise and stay active.
Also, in terms of diet, they should be eating what the whole family is eating. You should not be forcing them to eat salad while not putting the same pressure on their thinner sibling or while pushing peas to the side yourself. At no point should they feel like they have been put on a diet. Point blank.
- Have healthy food options available at home
Learn about what nutrients are important for growth and development and make they available. Get them involved in preparing the foods, ask them what fruits and vegetables are their favourites and take their preferences into consideration as well. Making mealtimes a positive experience will make them more open to trying new things. I’m not saying they can have chocolate cake for dinner but like if they eat the spinach but really don’t like cauliflower, is the world really going to implode?
- Take their stress and anxiety seriously
I don’t have data on this but I’m willing to bet children who present as overweight/obese have a story to tell. They may not have the words to tell you everything in detail right now or may not even see it themselves yet, but knowing they are safe and secure in their home is so important. Help them find creative outlets and talk through anything that may be difficult for them to cope with. I’m not saying that every fat kid is a child of trauma but even for myself, something as routine as starting a new grade would prevent me from sleeping for weeks because I didn’t think I was prepared. It sounds silly and like something I would grow out of, but I assure you at 25 I still deal with the same issues, only now we call it imposter syndrome.
All kids are different and not everyone’s experience of being fat is going to present the same. Gender, cultural background, socioeconomic status, where they live, race etc all play significant roles as well. It’s important to remember that if the end goal is to have a HEALTHIER child, that includes not intervening in a way that will inadvertently be at the cost of their long-term mental health.
If we collectively raise children to be kind to the bodies they have been blessed with, we may end up raising a generation that spends more time living out their dreams, goals and finding purpose, instead of monitoring their weight, calories and waist circumference.
Radical, I know.