Being the parent of an overweight child can bring with it many mixed emotions. Some parents feel embarrassed or ashamed, some feel angry that health professionals have not taken them seriously when they have asked for help, or that they have pointed out that their child is overweight during an assessment as part of the national child measurement programme. Some fear being judged or blamed for letting their child become overweight and others feel helpless in not knowing what to do to support their child. This section is aimed at helping parents to support their child in living healthier lifestyles.
If one parent is obese, there is a 50 percent chance that the children will also be obese. However, when both parents are obese, this risk increases to an 80 percent chance of their children becoming obese. Although certain medical disorders can cause obesity, less than 10% percent of all obesity is caused by genetics. Obesity in childhood and adolescence can be related to:
- poor eating habits
- overeating or binging
- lack of exercise (i.e., couch potato kids)
- medical illnesses (endocrine, neurological problems)
- medications (steroids, some psychiatric medications)
- stressful life events or changes (separations, divorce, moves, deaths, abuse)
- family and peer problems
- low self-esteem
- anxiety and depression or other emotional problems
- family history of obesity
- socio-economic factors such as home environments and lifestyles
Obesity in children poses many potential health risks that are normally assumed to be adult disorders. This includes heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, asthma, fatty liver, infertility, polycystic ovaries and high cholesterol and can often affects emotional well-being resulting in low self esteem, anxiety, depression and bullying. All these conditions are preventable with a good weight management programme which aims to educate about healthy eating and encourage physical activity. Identifying weight gain early in children and young people is essential so that early intervention is possible.
It is important not to create an eating disorder or promote poor self-esteem when trying to help children and young people gain a health weight . The emphasis should be on teaching them to eat healthily and exercise regularly NOT for them to diet.
How can I help my child?
Parents can set good examples by role modelling healthy eating and healthy lifestyles. Here are a few tips for parents to follow;
- Encourage your child/ren to eat when they are hungry not when they are bored. Be aware of your child’s hunger cues and try to stay away from a ‘clean plate’ policy. Even babies who turn away from the bottle or breast send signals that they are full. If children appear satisfied, they shouldn’t be forced to continue eating. Try not to promote over eating ‘if you eat all your dinner you can have a pudding’. This will encourage children to eat for a reward, rather than because they are hungry.
- Try not to talk about ‘good foods’ and ‘bad foods’. It is not necessary to completely eliminate all sweets and favourite snacks from an overweight child’s menu. If you do, children may rebel and overeat these forbidden foods outside the home or sneak them in on their own. (find out more about SHINE Nutrition and Healthy Eating here) Children will eat secretly if they fear being judged.
- Encourage children to eat a wide variety of food in moderation. Be aware of healthy portion sizes and steer away from ‘king size’ portions.
- Try to eat meals together as a family at the table, rather than in front of the TV. This also improves your child’s social and communication skills.
- Try to reduce the number of hours your child spends in sedentary activities, such as watching TV and playing computer games. Instead, encourage the family to exercise together in activities such as walking, cycling, swimming and other high energy activities such as skating and bowling. This makes exercise fun rather than a chore.
- Try to reduce the consumption of fizzy drinks that are high in sugar and replace with water or fresh fruit juices.
- Make sure your child has a breakfast of complex carbohydrates, which are slow release in energy such as cereals, toast, bananas. This will reduce the temptation for children to eat ‘unhealthy’ snacks during school breaks and will help them concentrate better at school. High sugar food can lead to agitated behaviours and poor concentration.
- Offer a trip to the cinema or concert as a reward, rather than praising with sweets and chocolate.
- Reduce temptation of ‘nibbling’ by cutting down on purchasing high sugar snacks and replace with fruit.
- Involve children in the preparation of food, making cooking and eating fun.
- Eating is linked to emotions. When children are upset comfort them with a hug rather than a biscuit (see our Emotional wellbeing page for more information).