An Adult's Guide to the Overweight Child

Many parents or adults find it challenging to adjust to the transformation of a child's body into an adult's. We all have certain psychological and emotional associations with a child's body that shift markedly as that child grows up. There's a dissonance people experience between the feelings towards a child juxtaposed with the child physically looking like an adult. Too difficult to manage emotionally, adults hope that ignoring the change will make it go away. 

Similarly, the way a parent reacts to the idea of an overweight child is much different than reacting to a child one knows or a child of one's own. Adults, in a hypothetical situation, would easily brush off the idea of a child on a diet. We can all quickly realize the detriment of teaching a child about restricting food, and my recent posts to this blog highlight the dangers of dieting. But what happens when this is a child you know? Or if it is your child?

There is so much media attention to child and adolescent obesity that a child one knows on a diet might feel appropriate, the risks outweighed by the fear of obesity. For some parents, having an overweight child may even signify a sign of failed parenting. Then, in a much more personal situation, a diet might not be so absurd after all but a needed step to right a wrong. 

Rather than reflexively jump to a diet, an adult needs to survey the entire situation. Not only does a diet run the risk of triggering a starvation response and perhaps even an eating disorder (as explained more fully in the last two posts), the diet also sends a message to the child that he or she is doing something wrong: their weight is a personal fault that needs to be fixed.

Body weight and shape are largely fundamental aspects of body both genetic and based on developmental stage. Fully assessing the child's situation is already a way to put weight and shape in its place and not give them too much importance. 

The first step is to assess the child's general food intake and exercise. If the child eats normally for that age and within the norm of most children, then it is a fair assumption that the child's diet is not an issue. Similarly, if the child's physical activity falls within the norm then that is also not relevant. It can be surprising for adults to realize that children all of whom eat about the same amount and types of foods and engage in moderate activity can end up in a wide range of body weights and shapes. Many factors affect what anyone's body looks like. The goal is health, not some preferred body shape. 

The second concern is the child's developmental stage. For boys and girls, the few years before puberty can be a time of weight gain. Often this seems to be preparation for the vast changes the body is about to undergo. If a child gains weight around that time without any lifestyle changes, it is likely a response to development. 

The third critical piece of information is family history. If the parents or other close relatives have a larger shape, then it is likely the child will as well. If the parents gained weight at certain times of childhood, then it's not surprising if the child does too. In other words, the child has the parents' genes so his or her body will likely grow in ways that are similar. Punishing a child for having a similar body to his or her parents is paradoxical. The goal is acceptance of who we are, not pressure to be something different. 

An adult can approach a child's change in body weight and shape with reasoned, thoughtful questions. The reflexive jump to a diet sets the child up for self-doubt, if not worse, over time. Acceptance and self-worth are necessary goals for any child that clearly overshadow any goal of ideal weight and shape, which only seem to derail development and risk disordered eating and worse.

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