Weight is a sensitive subject for all of us, and kids are no different. Even from a fairly young age, children are aware of what their bodies look like, what’s considered “ideal” and whether or not those those two images match up. For parents, trying to fight such comparisons and instill a positive body image for kids while still promoting health and wellbeing can feel like an impossibly thin line.
Is your child’s weight something you should even bring up at all? If so, how can you do it in a caring and supportive way?
What Is a Kid’s Healthy Weight?
A lot of parental worry today stems from the rising rates of childhood obesity. Whether we watch the evening news or scroll through our newsfeed, it’s hard to avoid the frightening statistics:
- In 2017, 15.8% of children and adolescents in the United States were obese, which equates to about 13.7 million young people.
- Since the late 1970s, overall childhood obesity rates in the United States have tripled; for teens aged 12–19, they have quadrupled.
- Although absolute rates of obesity are higher for adults than children, childhood obesity rates are climbing more rapidly across every age group in the United States.
Childhood obesity is certainly a growing problem, but it’s important not to jump to conclusions about your child’s weight. Growing kids are, well, growing—and every child’s body develops on a slightly different timeline.
When it comes to kids, “healthy weight” is often a moving target. At any given age, there’s a wide spectrum of completely normal weights, just like there’s a range of normal heights, body shapes and shoe sizes.
Before assuming that your child is out of a normal weight range, we always advise speaking with your pediatrician. It’s also important to remember that weight is not necessarily a direct indicator of health. Together with your doctor, the focus should be on your child’s overall health and wellbeing, not just weight.
4 Conversation Starters for the “Weight Talk” With Your Kid
If your child’s pediatrician agrees that their weight might be a concern, you’ll now face the delicate task of guiding your child in a healthy direction. We know how difficult it can be to approach these conversations, so here are a few ways to get things going—as well as a few different phrasings to try out.
1. Connect It to Your Child’s Interests
Younger children may not understand the close relationship between what they eat and how they feel. Explaining how a positive relationship with food can help them enjoy their interests even more can be a good way to make that connection.
- “Derek, I know that you love going to the pool with your friends, but you always complain about being too tired. Changing what we eat for breakfast might give you the energy for a full afternoon of swimming. Want to try that?”
- “I know how much you care about tennis, Alison. I think if we all make some changes to what we’re eating, you’ll have a lot more energy on the court. How does that sound?”
2. Address Family History, Not Weight
Instead of focusing on weight or even on your child in particular, have a discussion together about your family’s health history. Frame it as something that you all share and need to watch out for as a unit.
- “Sam, have we ever told you about grandpa’s heart disease? Now that you’re old enough, I want to share what happened to him so that we can all take healthy steps based on our family history.”
- “When I was your age, my mom had to start taking medication. If my family had made some changes to our dinner habits, she probably wouldn’t have had to. Can I tell you more about that?”
3. Ask Your Kid for Ideas
Because this kind of conversation starter doesn’t bring up weight at all, it avoids making your child feel singled out.
- “I really want our family to get healthier together. What are your ideas for us to be healthier?”
- “Joy, I’d love for us to spend more time together. What kind of outdoor activities would you like to explore?”
- “I’m looking for a new hobby to get out of the house! Is there anything outdoors-y that you’ve been wanting to try? Maybe we can start something new together.”
4. Wait for Your Kid to Bring It Up.
According to Dr. Neumark-Sztainer, it may be better to wait for older children and teens to bring up their weight themselves. Listen for comments about their body (“I feel so fat!” or “I hate my stomach rolls!”) and then respond in a caring, non-pushy way.
- “I love you no matter how you look, but if you want to make a change, then I support you. Instead of weight, how about we focus on what we’re eating and how much we’re moving every day?”
- “I love you and want you to feel good about yourself. How about we work together to make a few changes to what we eat?”
- “There are so many wonderful things to love about yourself! Let’s practice focusing on your wonderful art and contagious laughter while we work together to feel healthy. How can I help support you?
The “weight talk” is almost always going to be uncomfortable, but what matters most is that you lead with compassion. It’s okay to stumble over a few phrases and not have every single word mapped out! Just focus on listening with empathy and approach the issue from the perspectives of health, not weight, and “we,” not “you.”
Also keep in mind that you never have to mention the word “weight” and definitely not the word “diet.” You may not even directly talk about your child’s weight at all. Every small, nonjudgmental conversation is a positive step and will help build a relationship where you can work on feeling good together without making it all about weight.
How to Help Kids Lose Weight: 7 Tips for Positive Action
Although it’s important to be willing to talk about weight with your child, the most effective way to lose weight is usually just the opposite. Instead of talking about how to help children lose weight, take action!
1. Avoid Negative Self-Talk
Little ears hear everything, and if they hear you criticizing your own figure or fixating on your own perceived flaws, it’ll be hard not to emulate that behavior themselves. Lead by example by cutting out the negative self-talk as much as possible.
2. Get Active Together
Being overweight can be very isolating, so the less singled-out your kid feels, the more likely they are to embrace positive change for themselves. Get the whole family involved so that it’s a team effort to gain health together.
- Schedule new sports activities.
- Go on bike rides or walks together.
- Try out a dance or exercise class at your gym or community center.
- Do some YouTube yoga.
- Find your child’s new favorite outdoor activities.
- Make it a game to visit every major park in your city.
- Set aside time to move every day, even if it’s just a few minutes.
3. Clean Up the Kitchen
We don’t just mean the dust bunnies! Take a day to sort through your fridge, freezer and pantry to reduce empty-calorie snacks like soft drinks, juice, chips, cookies and candy.
You don’t have to toss or donate everything “bad,” as too much change at once can actually lead to more cravings and feelings of negativity. Focus on reducing heavily processed foods little by little and refilling your shelves with healthier junk food alternatives.
4. Eat at Home More
Fast food and restaurant food are often far higher in calories than comparable homemade dishes. By cutting down the number of times you eat out, you’ll be naturally reducing your family’s portion sizes as well as your intake of salt, fat and added sugar.
If you don’t always have time to cook your own meals, Nurture Life’s ready-to-eat kids meals could be a great option for your family. Our meals take the guesswork out of how to help kids lose weight as they’re pre-portioned, super-convenient (ready in 3 minutes or less) and made with a focus on reducing salt and added sugar. Each meal also has a variety of flavors to expand your kid’s palate and encourage healthier eating habits for a lifetime.
5. Limit Screen Time
With less time to play on phones or tablets, you’ll all be able to find more ways to get moving together. Try to limit your kids’ screen time to a couple hours per day. For a healthy sleep routine during the school year, it’s also a good idea to restrict backlit screens right before bed.
6. Continue to Promote a Positive Body Image
If you’re wondering how to promote a positive body image throughout this health journey, follow this simple rule: focus on the effort, not the results. By that, we mean that it’s always better to comment on your child’s new skills, outlook or ability over any kind of physical change:
- “Wow! Great job getting to the ball in time!” vs. “Your basketball uniform looks so much better on you now!”
- “Don’t you love feeling so strong and full of energy?” vs. “Don’t you love looking so thin?”
- “I noticed you’ve been having fruit for dessert. Which one’s your favorite so we can stock up?” vs. “You look great now that you aren’t eating ice cream every day!”
7. Bring Attention to Other Accomplishments
Part of the health journey is recognizing that self-worth shouldn’t be tied to the number on a scale. Remember to acknowledge your child’s other accomplishments beyond their health progress. By helping them feel proud of their talents, personality and achievements, you can help create a more well-rounded version of healthy that can have positive impacts on all aspects of their lives.
With these strategies for discussing and building health together, you can help your child lose weight without ever making weight the key focus. By taking the lead yourself and including your child in a family health effort, you’ll be giving them the tools to succeed—and helping them view health as so much more than a number on a scale.