Overweight kids can fall victim to all kinds of bullying. From name calling to playground confrontations, studies show heftier kids are more likely to be the target of bullying than children with smaller body sizes.
But what’s a kid to do when he or she is feeling bullied at home because of their weight? A recent news story by CNN focused on a young girl whose family called her names like “Twinkie” and “Gordita” and nagged her about food choices, thinking their criticism would inspire her to lose weight. In actuality the abuse caused her to eat even more, turning to food for the comfort and support she wasn’t offered by her family.
It’s a sad story, but unfortunately not an uncommon one. And as media attention on the growing childhood obesity problem in America intensifies, more and more people may use methods like this to pressure family members to lose weight. But as Suzanne Rostler, MS, RD, LDN, of Children’s Hospital Boston’s Optimal Weight for Life (OWL) Program, points out, methods like those discussed in the CNN story can be more dangerous than the weight itself.
“In some cases you see parents who are hyper-aware, hyper-involved and hyper-healthy. They tend to foster an atmosphere of perfection in their children academically, socially and appearance-wise, but some are at risk of putting too much pressure on their kids to lose weight and that method can backfire,” she says. Roslter also notes that a kid’s reaction to this style of parental “motivation” can differ greatly depending on the age of the child.
“Kids’ reactions to that type of parenting tend to depend on how old the child is,” she says. “For instance some teenagers have a natural urge to rebel and the more a parent comments on their weight or food choices the more likely it is the teen will do the opposite to annoy the parent.”
Regardless of the child’s age or parent’s intent, Roslter says this type of for-your-own-good bullying is counterproductive and parents who are concerned about their child’s weight should address the issue with as much empathy as possible. She says addressing the issue with calm and understanding is far more likely to promote an open line of communication on the subject, which in turn can help kids reduce their size in a healthy way.
“As a parent you need to do whatever you can to not place blame on the child or make him or her feel ashamed for being overweight,” she says. “Maybe you’ve noticed the child turning down invitations to swim parties and you’re wondering why and if there’s anything as a mom or dad you can do to help. Really as a parent you want to try to ask questions that get the child to open up and talk.”
In addition, Rostler says parents who make good food choices are more likely to have kids who make good food choices, but parents need to remember that healthy eating is not a competition. Comments like, “I eat well, why can’t you?” can hurt far more than they help.
“Being a positive role model in terms of diet is the most important thing a parent can do to help their kids make better food choices, but you want to do it in way doesn’t try to make the parent look perfect either,” she says. “No one should come across as a martyr for eating healthy. Saying, ‘That’s just the way we eat in our house,’ is a far better approach.”
Lastly Rostler says parents who have healthy, open exchanges with their kids about weight loss might want to consider reaching out to professionals for help. Just like you wouldn’t try to fix a child’s broken arm without expert medical advice, Roslter doesn’t recommend trying to take on a serious health issue like obesity without consulting a trained professional.
“As long as the child is willing, it may be a good idea to have them meet with a dietitian,” she says. “And depending on whether or not a dangerous eating pattern has been established, parents might also want to consider speaking with a behaviorist who specializes in food, body image and self esteem issues.”