A child struggling with weight issues has to face an unsympathetic world–one steeped in the idolatry of the body, glamorizing thinness at all costs. “Thin is in” and the pressure to conform is enormous.

When your body doesn’t measure up, the reminders are everywhere. Social rejection is not an easy pill to swallow. The stigma is great. Check the answers to these 10 questions to better understand and help your child with overeating:

  1. Is your child eating as a way to deal with stress? Kids, like adults, can medicate life stress and difficulties with food. Food serves to temporarily numb out problems or bad feelings. It provides immediate gratification. Food becomes a friend who never leaves and always offers satisfaction. However when food is used to cope with stress or negative feelings, weight gain results and that can lead to feelings of inadequacy and even self-hate. So teach your children to deal with negative feelings and the reactions of people around them.
  2. Is your child eating as a response to family stress? If so, that stress needs to be eliminated, reduced or resolved. Otherwise food will be used to cope with family problems. This early lesson will carry over to the teen and adult years as well. For example, if a child overeats related to the stress of a custody battle, parents should work out their differences in a way that does not triangulate the child into their disputes. Custody issues should be resolved in a respectful and timely manor. Or for example, if a family has a chronically ill child who needs extra parental attention, another child in the family may overeat to cope with the stress of that situation. Better coping methods should be taught and rehearsed with the child who is well. Again, the emphasis is on teaching the child not to overeat as a response to family stress.
  3. Does your child want to eat when there is physical discomfort? Some children overeat as a response to physical discomfort. For example, does your child eat to relieve headaches or to cope with feeling tired? Has she had a chronic illness and uses food to comfort or distract from pain? Again, this relates to a child’s coping mechanisms. The solution is to help the child manage pain or physical problems in ways that don’t involve overeating.
  4. How does your child fit in socially? Is she anxious, uncomfortable or avoiding others? When a child struggles socially, coach the child in peer relationship skills to reduce social anxiety. It is true that overweight children suffer more rejection and social exclusion than their normal weight peers. However, they can practice social skills aimed at increasing positive peer relationships. In addition, social anxiety may need to be treated.
  5. Are there opportunities to overeat? Are meal times unscheduled with family members coming and going? Is the house filled with high fat, empty calorie snacks? Is snacking an all day event? If a child overeats because there is opportunity to overeat, make some needed changes. Reduce or eliminate fast food eating. Next, buy healthy foods that build strong bodies. Cook using less processed foods. And do not talk to children about dieting. Instead, help a child grow into his weight. Dieting only sets up a deprivation mentality that leads kids to overeat even more. And research shows that having regular family meals does wonders to help a child nutritionally and has the side benefit of decreasing teens’ risk of psychosocial problems, drug use, risky sexual behavior, and suicidal intentions.[1]
  6. Is there a power struggle at meals? Eliminate these power struggles. Make meal time a relaxing and enjoyable family  event. Model good eating habits. Encourage your child to stop eating when full. Guide versus dictate food choices. Eat at regular times. Refrain from using food as rewards or punishments. Eat at designated areas (the kitchen table). Regularly offer a variety of foods to encourage healthy food choices.
  7.  Is your child getting enough physical exercise and activity? A sedentary lifestyle is one of the roots of being overweight. Children need to engage in active play (away from screens) and use their imagination. Exercise needs to be part of their day with 30-60 minutes recommended. Make exercise fun and try to engage the entire family. Don’t single out a child to be active if other family members aren’t playing too. Choose activities your child enjoys like bike riding, rollerblading, kick ball, hop scotch, tag, etc. If a child needs to be motivated to exercise, use praise and behavioral strategies to increase movement activities.
  8. Does your child overeat at school? During the Pandemic this has been less of a concern, but eventually kids will return to school on a more normal basis. Parents aren’t always aware of the availability of unhealthy foods at schools, particularly vending machines. Many schools have an a la carte menu apart from their normal lunch programs. In addition, fast foods may be brought in to the school. Your child may be trading more nutritious packed lunches for harmful substitutes and sodas. Parents need to know what foods their children have access to during the school day and possibly advocate for healthier food offerings at school.
  9. What is your attitude about your own body image and weight? Do you obsess over imperfections or define yourself by appearance? Do you have a strong sense of self based on God’s Word and calling in your life? These are important questions for you because so much of a child’s attitude about her body comes from listening to how parents and other people talk about their bodies. If you are constantly diet, make negative remarks about your body, obsess on fat and talk about the way people look, children pick up on these themes. Then they feel they don’t measure up to your preconceived ideals.
  10. Are you showing unconditional love? Children need to be told they are made in the image of God. God values them for who they are, not because of their physical appearance. Children should be unconditionally loved regardless of looks or weight—a message they need to recognize as from God, but also from their earthly parents.  While it is important to take care of our holy temples, it is equally important to value what God values. Teach  your children to emphasize character rather than just weight.

Remember parents, you shape your child’s environment. Parents set the stage for a child’s eating habits, exercise and movement and healthy use of food early in life. The battle for fitness and health isn’t hopeless or elusive. Even when families feel like they’ve failed when it comes to overweight prevention, it’s never too late to begin. Changes made a step at a time will make a big difference. A child’s physical and mental health is at stake. In the long run, families will feel better physically, emotionally and spiritually if they do their part to prevent childhood obesity.

 

[1]Doherty, W. “Overscheduled Kids, Underconnected Families: the research evidence.” (2000).  http://puttingfamiliesfirst.info/html/research.html

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