Many parents find it difficult to discuss weight with their children, and like all sensitive issues there are more and less helpful ways of starting a discussion.
Before talking to your child, it is a good idea to make sure whether they are actually overweight. It can be difficult to know if you should be concerned about your child's weight. Health professionals use several measures to check if a child is overweight including Body Mass Index (BMI), waist circumference and body fat. You can calculate your child's BMI using the specialist calculator on the Weight Concern website, or ask a GP or School Nurse to help you with this.
Whether or not you want to talk in detail to your child about weight might depend on what you expect them to do about it.
At any age, weighing your child regularly - no more than once a week - can help you keep an eye on the problem and help prevent it getting any worse. Keeping an overweight child's weight stable as they grow is the safest way to help them lose excess fat and achieve a healthy body shape. Large weight losses for children are not recommended and should only be attempted for very overweight children with regular specialist supervision.
The easiest way to make something into a big issue is to have a 'big talk' about it. Therefore we recommend avoiding the big talk unless your child obviously wants to. Instead, take the chance to talk a little bit about weight when suitable opportunities arise. Good ways into such conversations could involve asking a child how they feel about the following situations:
The simplest way to start a conversation is to ask a child whether such situations bother them and ask whether they would like you to help them do something about it. Sometimes another family member has an illness related to obesity, it can be helpful to acknowledge this to the child, showing that you don't blame them, but want to help.
Conversations about sensitive topics are always difficult and it's tempting to avoid them. The following facts might give you more confidence to talk to your child about weight:
Even the most well-meaning parent occasionally gets frustrated and tongue-tied when their child says that they want to do one thing (i.e. lose weight) and behaves another way (demands an ice cream). The following are common pitfalls to avoid when talking to your child about their weight:
Don't tell your child that they are 'greedy' or 'lazy'. Do tell them that you recognise how hard it is to make healthy choices at times.
Don't make your child feel guilty about their eating habits. Do praise them lavishly when you see them eating healthily.
Don't tell your child that that they are not helping themselves.
Do ask your child how you can help them eat more healthily.
Don't scare your child into trying to lose weight. Do ask them what would be good about being less heavy.
Don't moan about your own weight and how 'boring' being on a diet is.
Do set a good example and do everything that you expect your child to do.
Don't comment negatively about other people (friends, family, celebrities) who are overweight.
Do point out those things that you consider nice about your child's appearance: their choice of clothes, their eyes, their hair, etc.
Don't tell your child that they will only be happy at a normal weight.
Do talk to your child about the positive effects of managing their weight.
Don't tell your child that their weight is their fault.
Do make sure that they understand that some people have a great deal more difficulty controlling their weight than others - life isn't fair, but perhaps in other ways they are lucky.
Finally we thought we would end with what children have told us about how parents should talk to them about their weight:
Weight Concern are interested in hearing your views on how to motivate your child to get healthy. Email your do's and don'ts about talking to your children about their weight to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This webpage was developed with the kind support of Tanita, who provided weighing scales for this project. Tanita had no influence over the content of the material.