If your child is overweight, discussing that problem can be one of the most difficult conversations you’ll face as a parent. Sarah Stone, co-creator and director of operations for MindStream Academy, lists several reasons why parents are hesitant to have the “weight talk” and presents compelling reasons for overcoming that reluctance.
If you’re the parent of an overweight child, you probably feel like you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, you know that your child’s health is in jeopardy and that you should take the lead in addressing this problem. But on the other hand, bringing up this touchy topic—not to mention figuring out how to make important lifestyle changes—is difficult, uncomfortable, and potentially embarrassing for all involved. If you’re like most parents in this situation, you probably find yourself putting off the “weight talk” for just a little while longer…and a little longer after that…and a little longer after that.
According to Sarah Stone, co-creator and director of operations for MindStream Academy, you’re making a big mistake. It’s time to stop stalling and start talking—for the sake of everyone involved.
“Communication is an essential part of effective parenting—but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy or enjoyable,” says Stone. “It certainly doesn’t help that most parents are never trained in this critical skill—especially when our children and sensitive topics are involved. And children’s weight in particular is too often the elephant in the room.”
The good news is, as the current director of operations at MindStream Academy, a co-ed health and wellness boarding school for teens who want to get fit, lose weight, build self-esteem, better manage stress, and take control over their health and wellness, Stone can shed some much-needed light on this tough topic.
First, she says, it’s helpful to understand that you’re not alone in feeling reluctant to discuss your child’s weight. In fact, a recent study conducted by FIT, a partnership of WebMD and Sanford Health, showed that about 5 percent of parents struggle when talking to their kids about drugs and alcohol and that 10 percent are uncomfortable talking about sex, but 25 percent are hesitant to discuss their children’s weight issues. In fact, many parents of 8- to 17-year-olds admit to avoiding the weight conversation altogether.
“These statistics are not surprising, but they are tragic,” Stone says. “The developing years are when the brain learns habits that will last a lifetime. So right now is when a lasting change can be made relatively easily. Frighteningly, though, if parents don’t act, the health habits of today’s children will only get worse from every conceivable angle—increased disease risk across the spectrum, poorer quality of life, and massive public and private expenditures that will weigh heavily on the economy and on the lifestyle of almost every citizen.”
No parents want their children to experience any of the problems Stone describes. To help you get over your reluctance to have the weight discussion, here are five reasons she says parents are likely to hold back when it comes to talking about their children’s No. 1 health issue…and why you need to stay the course regardless.
They maintain complete radio silence (on parenting issues, anyway). When your child is small, it goes without saying that you’ll tell her what to do in most areas of her life—or at least make strong suggestions. But as kids grow into their tweens and teens, this autocratic approach often falls by the wayside. Since teens are supposed to start making their own decisions and growing into their independence, some formerly-involved moms and dads believe that they can stop being parents and start being friends. And “friends,” their reasoning goes, would accept one another as-is instead of bringing up sensitive issues like excess weight.
“There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to cultivate a fun, positive relationship with your kids, but never forget that being your child’s buddy is not your primary function,” Stone insists. “A parent’s job is to provide guidance, love, support, and effective preparation for life, even if that causes temporary resentment. Good parenting means recognizing that children have issues and then guiding them lovingly to effective solutions. And while good parents listen to their children’s input and take their feelings into account, they also know that raising a child isn’t a democratic process.”
They want to spare their children’s feelings. It’s something of an understatement to say that your child’s well-being is important to you. The last thing you want to do is cause him any sort of hurt. For that simple reason—a reluctance to see their children in emotional pain—many parents avoid telling their kids that their weight is unhealthy. They are unwilling to, as the saying goes, be cruel in order to be kind.
“Just as effective parenting isn’t about being a friend, it’s also not about sparing feelings,” Stone asserts. “On some level, parents know that if a child is very sensitive about a subject, that’s exactly why we should be talking to them. Letting children continue to feel shame, humiliation, and embarrassment because they (or you) don’t want to talk is only compounding the problem. In other words, avoidance is a symptom that you don’t want to reinforce. It’s a bit like locking the door on a house that’s on fire and pretending it isn’t burning. Remember, not facing a fire doesn’t put it out.”
They know that food isn’t a clear-cut “bad guy.” Remember those statistics on parents who avoid tough talks? Twenty-five percent are reluctant to discuss weight problems, while 10 percent avoid the sex talk, and only 5 percent struggle with addressing drugs and alcohol. There’s a good reason for the disparity in those numbers: sex, drugs, and alcohol are choices that don’t have to be pursued, whereas everyone has to eat. Talking about food in negative terms is much more dicey.
“It’s a lot easier to talk about drugs rather than weight because there’s a moral structure to the discussion,” Stone says. “Using illegal drugs is wrong, and therefore the guideline is much more concrete for parents to set forth and enforce. But neither weight nor eating are moral choices; they are a function of everyday decisions. St. Augustine said that ‘Abstinence is easier than perfect moderation,’ and of course, he was right.”
They don’t know how to help. Knowing that your child’s weight is unhealthy is one thing. Knowing how to make positive changes is another. Understandably, many parents are reluctant to broach the subject of their kids being overweight because they simply don’t know what to say to effectively guide their children. After all, with incredibly lucrative industries revolving around health and weight loss, parents (as well as kids) are faced with a massive amount of often-conflicting information about how to best proceed.
“It’s one thing to address the issue, but being unsure of where it’s going and what advice to give can certainly inhibit the discussion,” Stone admits. “It’s important to understand that in reality, weight management is about many aspects of lifestyle ranging from sleep to stress management, not just food and exercise. Meanwhile, the average parent is still stuck in a ‘fat culture’ that revolves around the concept of diet, rather than understanding that this is about more far-reaching behaviors and the whole person. That’s why MindStream Academy rejects the concept of being an extended fat camp for children to drop weight, and instead focuses on teaching a healthy lifestyle. Parents can take a page from MindStream’s book by researching and learning about holistic health.”
They have their own weight issues. In a culture in which 70 percent of people are overweight if not obese, many parents struggle with the problem of carrying extra pounds themselves. If that’s the case in your family, you—the pot—may be (understandably) reluctant to call the kettle black. Plus, you probably know that the “do as I say, not as I do” strategy doesn’t tend to work over the long term. And, toughest of all to admit, you might realize that doing something about your child’s weight will force you to tackle your own as well.
“Parents inevitably bring their own feelings about weight to the table, which can certainly prevent meaningful discussion,” Stone says. “Often, they too feel helpless and thus not in a position to give advice. Also, raising your own child can elicit emotionally fraught memories from your own childhood. If weight has been a lifelong issue for you, you’ll instinctively try to avoid those resurrected emotions. Remember, though, while you cannot change the past, you do have the power to create a better future for yourself and for your child.”
“Once they realize that it’s dangerous to put off the weight talk, many parents believe that they can safely leave the discussion to the family doctor, pediatrician, or other health professional,” Stone adds. “Getting professional input is a great idea, especially if nothing else is working. But know, though, that research suggests that health professionals also have difficulties raising sensitive issues with their teenage patients.
“Ultimately, while others might talk to your children about weight, the most important discussion they can have is with you. That’s because parents control the health environment at home and establish the wellness culture in the family. They are in a position to actually do something about the obstacles their kids are facing. And given that your children’s lives are quite literally on the line, avoiding the subject is a terrible abrogation of parental responsibility.”
Sarah Stone is co-creator and director of operations for MindStream Academy, a full-service boarding school in South Carolina for teens and tweens who want to get healthy, fit, lose weight, take control of their lives, build self-esteem, and pursue a personal passion.