If your child is overweight, deciding to talk about this unhealthy lifestyle is only the first step. It can also be a huge challenge to have a productive, helpful discussion—especially if your child is unwilling to hear what you have to say. Here are eight suggestions from Sarah Stone, co-creator and director of operations for MindStream Academy, for avoiding as much conflict as possible.
Put the focus squarely on health and not weight. Whether by default or by design, each family has a health and wellness “culture.” This includes the types of food that are kept in the house, how heavily physical activity is emphasized, what sleep patterns are encouraged, how much health information is available, and more. As a parent, you should emphasize each aspect of this health culture, not just your child’s weight. Remember, healthy weight follows good lifestyle behaviors, but good lifestyle behaviors typically don’t follow weight loss diets.
Recognize that you spend too much time focusing on weight. Most people don’t realize how much they use weight as a yardstick to measure their overall quality of life as well as their worth. For example, how many times have you asked about a piece of clothing—“Does this make me look fat?”—with the understanding that if the answer is “yes,” you’ve somehow failed? That’s why, when broaching the subject of weight with your child (and in your own life), it’s important to stop talking about weight—and even, to some extent, appearance—and emphasize other characteristics. For example, talk about how an unhealthy lifestyle influences your child’s self-esteem and thus demeanor, as well as how he expresses himself and the impression he makes on other people.
Ask your child what would help. Yes, you’re the authority figure in this relationship, but it can be a mistake to assume that you know the best way to help your child become healthier. One of the problems with giving support from a position of experience is that you tend to think that your child’s situation is the same as yours, and therefore, the things that worked for you will work for her. That’s not necessarily the case. Instead, it’s always a great idea to ask what your child thinks the best course of action would be. This, Stone says, is a main talking point when working with the families of MindStream students.
Focus on change, even if you run into resistance. The purpose of any discussion about losing weight and living a healthier lifestyle is to bring about change. In other words, talking to your teen about his weight angst for an hour might have some value because it allows him to vent, but try not to leave the discussion there. Try to take one step forward, too, even if your child is resistant to change. According to Stone, an effective way to overcome resistance (or even cut the conversation short if things are getting heated) is to get a commitment to make just one change in the next week. That might be anything from drinking fewer sodas and more water to walking three days a week. Stone adds that focusing on one simple change per week seems manageable (as opposed to dropping 30 pounds, which is overwhelming), and is a very constructive way to move the conversation forward without getting too bogged down.
Observe how your child (and the whole family) uses food. Your discussion will be better received and more effective if you are well informed, so before instigating “the talk,” observe how your child uses food. For example, if you see that she eats in order to manage her emotions, you’ve gained an important piece of information about a very damaging habit. The truth is, we aren’t always are best observers of ourselves. So if you can determine whether or not your child is using food as a drug to avoid discomfort or as a stress manager, you’re one step closer to attacking the root of the problem. You can explain to your child that this underlying eating “trigger,” not food itself, is what you’ll need to focus on managing.
Don’t be judgmental. One thing is for sure: Nobody is perfect. And another thing is also for sure: If you attack someone, he’ll stop listening to you. Taking those two truths into account, Stone insists that you should avoid blaming your child at all costs. The fact is, we live in a fat culture, and the majority of Americans are overweight—so in many ways, your child’s struggle isn’t his fault. However, it is his and your responsibility to do something about it. The focus should always be on how you can help your child move forward from here, expressed as lovingly as possible.
Walk the walk. In the end, your example is the best way to change your child’s health behaviors. Stone points out that teens in particular are sensitive to hypocrisy. So if you aren’t ready to make any and all of the changes that you’re asking of your child, don’t instigate the weight discussion in the first place. If you can’t walk the walk, then your actions will simply be encouraging your children to continue with deadly habits that will have a major negative impact on their lives.
Getting professional help is always a good idea, but there may be siblings, other relatives, friends, or even teachers who might get a more receptive response. Sometimes, despite their best efforts, parents just can’t get a positive response from their children. If this happens in your family, Stone is adamant that someone needs to have the weight discussion with your child. And if all else fails? Well, Stone insists, all else can’t be allowed to fail. Your child’s life is too important.
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.