A weighty discussion

Why parents are reluctant to bring up the weight issue (and why that’s a big problem)

If your child is overweight, discussing that problem can be one of the most difficult conversations you’ll face as a parent. Sarah Stone lists several reasons why parents are hesitant to have the “weight talk” and presents compelling reasons for overcoming that reluctance.

If you’re the parent of an overweight child, you probably feel like you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, you know that your child’s health is in jeopardy and that you should take the lead in addressing this problem. But on the other hand, bringing up this touchy topic—not to mention figuring out how to make important lifestyle changes—is difficult, uncomfortable, and potentially embarrassing for all involved. If you’re like most parents in this situation, you probably find yourself putting off the “weight talk” for just a little while longer and a little longer after that and a little longer after that.          

According to Sarah Stone, though, you’re making a big mistake. It’s time to stop stalling and start talking—for the sake of everyone involved.            

“Communication is an essential part of effective parenting—but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy or enjoyable,” says Stone. “It certainly doesn’t help that most parents are never trained in this critical skill—especially when our children and sensitive topics are involved. And children’s weight in particular is too often the elephant in the room.”            

The good news is, as the current director of operations at MindStream Academy (www.mindstreamacademy.com), a co-ed health and wellness boarding school for teens who want to get fit, lose weight, build self-esteem, better manage stress, and take control over their health and wellness destinies, Stone can shed some much-needed light on this tough topic.            

First, she says, it’s helpful to understand that you’re not alone in feeling reluctant to discuss your child’s weight. In fact, a recent study conducted by FIT, a partnership of WebMD and Sanford Health, showed that about five percent of parents struggle when talking to their kids about drugs and alcohol and that ten percent are uncomfortable talking about sex, but 25 percent are hesitant to discuss their children’s weight issues. In fact, many parents of eight to seventeen year-olds admit to avoiding the weight conversation altogether.            

“These statistics are not surprising, but they are tragic,” says Stone. “The developing years are when the brain learns habits that will last a lifetime. So right now is when a lasting change can be made relatively easily. Frighteningly, though, if parents don’t act, the health habits of today’s children will only get worse from every conceivable angle—increased disease risk across the spectrum, poorer quality of life, and massive public and private expenditures that will weigh heavily on the economy and on the lifestyle of almost every citizen.”             

No parents want their children to experience any of the problems Stone describes. To help you get over your reluctance to have the weight discussion, here are five reasons she says parents are likely to hold back when it comes to talking about their children’s number one health issue and why you need to stay the course regardless.

They maintain complete radio silence (on parenting issues, anyway). When your child is small, it goes without saying that you’ll tell her what to do in most areas of her life—or at least make strong suggestions. But as kids grow into their tweens and teens, this autocratic approach often falls by the wayside. Since teens are supposed to start making their own decisions and growing into their independence, some formerly-involved moms and dads believe that they can stop being parents and start being friends. And “friends,” their reasoning goes, would accept one another as-is instead of bringing up sensitive issues like excess weight. “There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to cultivate a fun, positive relationship with your kids, but never forget that being your child’s buddy is not your primary function,” Stone insists. “A parent’s job is to provide guidance, love, support, and effective preparation for life, even if that causes temporary resentment. Good parenting means recognizing that children have issues and then guiding them lovingly to effective solutions. And while good parents listen to their children’s input and take their feelings into account, they also know that raising a child isn’t a democratic process.”

They want to spare their children’s feelings. It’s something of an understatement to say that your child’s wellbeing is important to you. The last thing you want to do is cause him any sort of hurt. For that simple reason—a reluctance to see their children in emotional pain—many parents avoid telling their kids that their weight is unhealthy. They are unwilling to, as the saying goes, be cruel in order to be kind.

“Just as effective parenting isn’t about being a friend, it’s also not about sparing feelings,” asserts Stone. “On some level, parents know that if a child is very sensitive about a subject, that’s exactly why we should be talking to them. Letting children continue to feel shame, humiliation, and embarrassment because they (or you) don’t want to talk is only compounding the problem. In other words, avoidance is a symptom that you don’t want to reinforce. It’s a bit like locking the door on a house that’s on fire and pretending it isn’t burning. Remember, not facing a fire doesn’t put it out.”

They know that food isn’t a clear-cut “bad guy.” Remember those statistics on parents who avoid tough talks? Twenty-five percent are reluctant to discuss weight problems, while 10 percent avoid the sex talk, and only 5 percent struggle with addressing drugs and alcohol. There’s a good reason for the disparity in those numbers: sex, drugs, and alcohol are choices that don’t have to be pursued, whereas everyone has to eat. Talking about food in negative terms is much more dicey. “It’s a lot easier to talk about drugs rather than weight because there’s a moral structure to the discussion,” points out Stone. “Using illegal drugs is wrong, and therefore the guideline is much more concrete for parents to set forth and enforce. But neither weight nor eating are moral choices; they are a function of everyday decisions. St. Augustine said that ‘Abstinence is easier than perfect moderation,’ and of course, he was right.”

They don’t know how to help. Knowing that your child’s weight is unhealthy is one thing. Knowing how to make positive changes is another. Understandably, many parents are reluctant to broach the subject of their kids being overweight because they simply don’t know what to say to effectively guide their children. After all, with incredibly lucrative industries revolving around health and weight loss, parents (as well as kids) are faced with a massive amount of often-conflicting information about how to best proceed. “It’s one thing to address the issue, but being unsure of where it’s going and what advice to give can certainly inhibit the discussion,” admits Stone. “It’s important to understand that in reality, weight management is about many aspects of lifestyle ranging from sleep to stress management, not just food and exercise. Meanwhile, the average parent is still stuck in a ‘fat culture’ that revolves around the concept of diet, rather than understanding that this is about more far-reaching behaviors and the whole person. That’s why MindStream Academy rejects the concept of being an extended fat camp for children to drop weight, and instead focuses on teaching a healthy lifestyle. Parents can take a page from MindStream’s book by researching and learning about holistic health.”

They have their own weight issues. In a culture in which 70 percent of people are overweight if not obese, many parents struggle with the problem of carrying extra pounds themselves. If that’s the case in your family, you—the pot—may be (understandably) reluctant to call the kettle black. Plus, you probably know that the “do as I say, not as I do” strategy doesn’t tend to work over the long term. And, toughest of all to admit, you might realize that doing something about your child’s weight will force you to tackle your own as well. “Parents inevitably bring their own feelings about weight to the table, which can certainly prevent meaningful discussion,” points out Stone. “Often, they too feel helpless and thus not in a position to give advice. Also, raising your own child can elicit emotionally fraught memories from your own childhood. If weight has been a lifelong issue for you, you’ll instinctively try to avoid those resurrected emotions. Remember, though, while you cannot change the past, you do have the power to create a better future for yourself and for your child.”           

 “Once they realize that it’s dangerous to put off the weight talk, many parents believe that they can safely leave the discussion to the family doctor, pediatrician, or other health professional,” adds Stone. “Getting professional input is a great idea, especially if nothing else is working. But know, though, that research suggests that health professionals also have difficulties raising sensitive issues with their teenage patients.             

“Ultimately, while others might talk to your children about weight, the most important discussion they can have is with you. That’s because parents control the health environment at home and establish the wellness culture in the family. They are in a position to actually do something about the obstacles their kids are facing. And given that your children’s lives are quite literally on the line, avoiding the subject is a terrible abrogation of parental responsibility.”

Eight tips for approaching the “Weight Talk”

If your child is overweight, deciding to talk about this unhealthy lifestyle is only the first step. It can also be a huge challenge to have a productive, helpful discussion—especially if your child is unwilling to hear what you have to say. Here are eight of Sarah Stone’s suggestions for avoiding as much conflict as possible.

 Put the focus squarely on health and off weight. Whether by default or by design, each family has a health and wellness “culture.” This includes the types of food that are kept in the house, how heavily physical activity is emphasized, what sleep patterns are encouraged, how much health information is available, and more. As a parent, you should emphasize each aspect of this health culture, not just your child’s weight. Remember, healthy weight follows good lifestyle behaviors, but good lifestyle behaviors typically don’t follow weight loss diets.

Recognize that you spend too much time focusing on weight. Most people don’t realize how much they use weight as a yardstick to measure their overall quality of life as well as their worth. For example, how many times have you asked about a piece of clothing, “Does this make me look fat?”—with the understanding that if the answer is “yes,” you’ve somehow failed? That’s why, when broaching the subject of weight with your child (and in your own life), it’s important to stop talking about weight—and even, to some extent, appearance—and emphasize other characteristics. For example, talk about how an unhealthy lifestyle influences your child’s self-esteem and thus demeanor, as well as how he expresses himself and the impression he makes on other people.

Ask your child what would help. Yes, you’re the authority figure in this relationship, but it can be a mistake to assume that you know the best way to help your child become healthier. One of the problems with giving support from a position of experience is that you tend to think that your child’s situation is the same as yours, and therefore, the things that worked for you will work for her. That’s not necessarily the case. Instead, it’s always a great idea to ask what your child thinks the best course of action would be. This, Stone says, is a main talking point when working with the families of MindStream students.

Focus on change, even if you run into resistance. The purpose of any discussion about losing weight and living a healthier lifestyle is to bring about change. In other words, talking to your teen about his weight angst for an hour might have some value because it allows him to vent, but try not to leave the discussion there. Try to take one step forward, too, even if your child is resistant to change. According to Stone, an effective way to overcome resistance (or even cut the conversation short if things are getting heated) is to get a commitment to make just one change in the next week. That might be anything from drinking fewer sodas and more water to walking three days a week. Stone adds that focusing on one simple change a week seems manageable (as opposed to dropping 30 pounds, which is overwhelming), and is a very constructive way to move the conversation forward without getting too bogged down.

Observe how your child (and the whole family) uses food. Your discussion will be better received and more effective if you are well informed, so before instigating “the talk,” observe how your child uses food. For example, if you see that she eats in order to manage her emotions, you’ve gained an important piece of information about a very damaging habit. The truth is, we aren’t always are best observers of ourselves. So if you can determine whether or not your child is using food as a drug to avoid discomfort or as a stress manager, you’re one step closer to attacking the root of the problem. You can explain to your child that this underlying eating “trigger,” not food itself, is what you’ll need to focus on managing.

Don’t be judgmental. One thing is for sure: nobody is perfect. And another thing is also for sure: if you attack someone, he’ll stop listening to you. Taking those two truths into account, Stone insists that you should avoid blaming your child at all costs. The fact is, we live in a fat culture, and the majority of Americans are overweight—so in many ways, your child’s struggle isn’t his fault. However, it is his and your responsibility to do something about it. The focus should always be on how you can help your child move forward from here, expressed as lovingly as possible.

Walk the walk. In the end, your example is the best way to change your child’s health behaviors. Stone points out that teens in particular are sensitive to hypocrisy. So if you aren’t ready to make any and all of the changes that you’re asking of your child, don’t instigate the weight discussion in the first place. If you can’t walk the walk, then your actions will simply be encouraging your children to continue with deadly habits that will have a major negative impact on their lives.

And if you really can’t get through Sometimes, despite their best efforts, parents just can’t get a positive response from their children. If this happens in your family, Stone is adamant that someone needs to have the weight discussion with your child. Getting professional help is always a good idea, but there may be siblings, other relatives, friends, or even teachers who might get a more receptive response. And if all else fails? Well, Stone insists, all else can’t be allowed to fail. Your child’s life is too important.

Sarah Stone is co-creator and director of operations for MindStream Academy. Along with Founder Ray Travaglione, she has worked on the MindStream Academy project from its inception. She is an honors graduate of the University of Toledo whose dream was always to work with youth. After her previous work as director of admissions at a teenage recovery management facility, Sarah found a path that led her to her work at MindStream. Her dream has been realized as she takes great pride in helping teens work to heal and nurture what is broken and learn to be tolerant and understanding of themselves.

About MindStream Academy:

MindStream Academy (www.mindstreamacademy.com) is a full-service boarding school on a pristine 43-acre horse farm in South Carolina for teens and tweens who want to get healthy, fit, lose weight, take control of their lives, build self-esteem, and pursue a personal passion.