Parenting young children — 23 June 2006
How to help your overweight child

There is a growing concern about obesity in the U.S. and the health risks associated with being overweight. Our children are heavier than they have ever been, 33.6% of children ages 2-19 are overweight and 17% are obese, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, April 2006. In addition to the health risks overweight children may face, they are emotionally and socially at a disadvantage. Their parents are often hard pressed to deal effectively with this problem.

During the first 18 months infants learn to attach to their primary caregiver. From 18 months to 3 years they learn to explore their environment and as early as four years they start their group experiences. Learning to be a group member, adapting to social rules and carving their place among others molds children as social beings. This process continues and evolves throughout one’s life.

Every child wants to blend in, belong and be accepted by the group and uses this accomplishment as a measure of his/her social worth. When a young child succeeds in being liked and included, his self-assessment and personal desirability is healthily established. Those children whose socialization into a group is hampered may sometimes suffer life long irreparable emotional damage. If they miss the welcoming group experience they may feel socially undesirable, rejected and even profoundly faulted.

Viewing oneself as unwelcome by others usually interferes with one’s ability to succeed in school, in social, vocational and interpersonal life pursuits. Children who have been bullied, mocked, belittled, excluded and rejected often feel profound isolation, unjustly treated, angry and even hateful toward others. The indignation and deep pain about being excluded leads some rejected children to severe depression, suicide or even homicide.

Being different from others is the most common reason for being socially ostracized. For example, a child may have a different hair color,
be dressed differently than others, be timid, or be taller, smaller or heavier than most. The group’s membership requirements specify the need for compliance with certain norms of physical and behavioral characteristics. Any variation from these standards renders one “different” and unacceptable.

Overweight children are more likely to encounter lack of acceptance than normal weight children. Parents are fully aware of this and avoid dealing with this issue for a variety of reasons: One is the concern that talking about it may cause the child to feel rejected by the parents. Another is the reluctance to support society’s erroneous notion that weight is a measure of one’s worth. Another reason is the fear that emphasizing size may tip their children into eating disorders. Some parents simply do not know how to best help their child slim down without depriving him or her of food. Some parents are unaware or minimize the trauma their children may ultimately have to endure.

If you are a parent of an overweight child, as assessed by a physician, please consider:

• An excessively chubby baby may be cute, but may already be overfed. “Baby fat” may not necessarily disappear with growing.
• Do not rationalize your child’s size as a genetic predisposition that is unavoidable. Prevention is easier than correction.
• Do not talk to the child about his/her size. Start modifying eating habits early. Offer, eat and be positive about healthy food.
• Reduce sedentary activities by participating with your child in sports and playing outside. Fun with family inspires children to seek this type of attention and develops positive association with being active.
• Abstain from offering a food treat to console an upset child. Take the time to talk, touch and empathize with his/her feelings.
• If your pre-teen or teenager speaks disparagingly about her body, affirm her worth and separate it from her looks. Remember that most adolescents have a distorted body image and need your realistic, non-judgmental input.

• If the adolescent is unhappy about being overweight, ask him what he wants to do and assist with his plans.
• Never make disparaging comments about overweight adults. It may painfully affirm your bias for your young child or cause a rebellious action by your teenager.
• Protect your young child from comments by others about her girth.
• Love and adore your child and restrain your fear and worry from showing.
• Helping tour child enter school and maintain a normal size is a gift of your love and a contribution to your child’s life long physical and emotional well being.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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