Focusing on healthy diet and exercise are great ways of keeping your child healthy. But if your child brings the topic of weight up, it's important to talk about it in a positive and caring way.
If your child is under 5
At 5 or less, children are too young to talk about body weight. But it’s never too early to introduce healthy lifestyle habits. This includes things like active play and eating healthy meals.
If your child is over 5
If your child doesn’t actually bring up the topic of body weight, you should not sit them down for a ‘big talk’ about it.
But if they do bring it up, you should open up the conversation.
How to talk about weight in a caring way
Talk about weight as a health matter
When talking about weight, it’s important to keep the focus on health. There are a lot of negative stereotypes about people who are overweight. People are often wrongly labelled as ‘fat’, ‘lazy’ or ‘bad.’ Don’t use these words to describe being overweight. It's better to use terms like ‘healthy weight’ and ‘unhealthy weight.’
Don’t talk about losing weight or dieting
For most children who are carrying too much weight, you should allow them to 'grow into their weight.' This is so they remain the same weight as they grow taller.
Many adults use the word ‘dieting’ in a negative way. Diets are usually for a short period. They involve following a food plan that may not be nutritionally balanced.
Talk about the specific things the family can do to eat healthier and be more physically active. It is the lifelong, long-term approach that works.
Focus on the habits that you can change
Highlight the changes that you feel are realistic for your family.
- fewer treats and sugary drinks
- eating one extra portion of fruit and vegetables a day
- cutting down on screen time
- making more time for exercise
Encourage self-esteem in your child
You should teach your child that self-esteem doesn't come from appearance alone. Promote healthy self-esteem by showing encouragement and enjoyment in many areas of life.
Compliment them for things that they do that aren’t related to appearance. This could be for being kind, being a good friend, doing well at school or looking after a pet. Focus on a few things and praise them for the effort they put into something, rather than the outcome. Talk about their good qualities. Self-esteem is also related to how valued your child feels.
Make changes together as a family
Children are more successful at making changes when the whole family do it together. You're the role model and it’s important that you make the same healthy changes too. It’s important that parents and other adults involved in their care are all on board.
Get your children involved in cooking. Preparing food will help them feel valued and will promote a good relationship with food.
Be strong and be the parent
Remember that you’re the parent or guardian of your child. You set the routine and house rules.
Children are likely to resist any changes when they are first introduced. Behaviours often may get worse before they get better. It is at this stage that you will find it difficult to stick to the new routine. But if you are consistent in your approach, children soon stop resisting any change. A consistent message is important. Everyone who spends time with your child needs to be on board with their new routine.
Starting a new routine
When choosing to start new routines, you need to pick a good time and be up for the challenge. For example, school holidays may not be the best time to start as many family routines stop. If you follow through on changes, it will be easier to introduce new ones in the future. You don’t want to fall into the habit of not following through on changes and your children resisting more.
If you struggle with your own weight
You're not alone in being worried to talk to your children about weight. Almost two-thirds of Irish adults are overweight. If your own weight comes up in conversation with your child, don’t ignore it. Instead, acknowledge it.
If your child is overweight
If your child is overweight or is at risk of becoming overweight, you may be hoping they will grow out of it. Unfortunately, this usually doesn't happen. Extra weight, seen as ‘puppy fat’, is not healthy. In most cases, it leads to weight and health problems in adulthood. So now is the time to tackle it.
Don't bring up the issue of body weight with your children unless they raise it themselves. You don’t need to use the word ‘weight.’ Instead, talk about a ‘healthy lifestyle’ or ‘healthy habits'. Focus on what changes you can do as a family. Discuss it together and make the changes. Remember, it’s never too early to introduce the idea of a healthy lifestyle.
If your child asks about body weight in general
It's important to acknowledge it. Tell them you're glad they mentioned it and let them lead the conversation. Let them express their feelings.
If your child is being bullied about their weight
This can be a very anxious conversation for you as a parent. You need to comfort your child in whatever way works for them. This might be a hug or some supportive words. Then try to deal with the bullying separately with school staff.
It is a very confusing time for a child and it’s important to talk it through. Allow them to express their feelings and lead the conversation. It's important that your child feels they are supported. They should know that something will be done about the bullying.
Don't make changes to your child’s lifestyle directly as a result of the bully’s words. Discuss making healthy changes at a different time.
If you're worried about giving your child an eating disorder
Eating disorders are serious and complex conditions. They involve serious disturbances in eating behaviours. They are not mainly about food. Eating disorders are often an unhealthy way of coping with emotional distress. They can also be a symptom of other issues.
Discussing weight as a health issue in a positive and caring way does not cause eating disorders.