A Conversation with a Fat Kid: Learning how to discuss childhood obesity with your child
He was a generally loving, roly-poly, 11-year-old. But Robert had a problem. He snacked. And he piled food on his plate. And he took second helpings. If there was candy, Fritos, soda or chips within 100 yards, his radar located them. When people thought of Robert, they automatically described him as: “Robert, that nice, blond, fat kid.” So when this perception seeped in and became a part of Robert’s unconscious identity, he didn’t even realize it. Robert’s parents knew he ate too much but what the heck. They were both overweight, too. So Robert’s life was threatened to be shortened by diabetes or heart problems and his social life slightly warped. But just as people who live in areas with heavy pollution, Robert generally didn’t think about the problem. And when he did, he ignored the mist of vague unease. But there is a big difference between living in a polluted environment and polluting our bodies.
Generally an individual can’t do much about the first, but is often entirely in control of the second. Nevertheless, there can be a helpless feeling about both. The responses of friends, families and loved ones provide us with the best hope for personal growth and change. Or their responses can be a hindrance, especially if we see their concerned comments as unwanted advice. As Robert sits and shovels calories in, there are a number of ways that his mom can respond to the over-eating. Here’s a list of possible responses and attitudes (shortened for clarity) from least to most helpful:
- Robert, you are going to be grease ball!
- Robert, have you stepped on the scales? Maybe they don’t they go high enough anymore?
- Robert, stop eating so much. You’re getting fat.
- Robert, it would be better if you didn’t take a second helping.
- Robert, are you giving thought to how much you are eating?
The reader does not have to be psychological wizard to realize that none of these responses may be of much help. At least the last response is a question, which might encourage thought. Love and Logic®, a popular parenting program on which these tips are based, always encourages questions as they promote thinking while statements, lectures and orders seldom do.
Love and Logic also teaches that the best time to deal with a chronic problem is when it is not occurring. Since the problem is bound to re-occur, it is best to pick a microsecond when everyone is feeling pleasant and communicative with each other. During this time of tranquility, problem-solve together about how to handle the situation when it occurs again in the future. Problem-solving conversations always include the following:
- Get permission to discuss the issue: An agreement or “contract” for the conversation to occur always lays the foundation.
- Curiosity and interest: Parental questions bubble up from an attitude of curiosity and interest rather than from a witness-stand attitude of inquisition and accusation.
- Respect: An attitude of mutual respect permeates the conversation.
- Connection: Often the conversation takes place with a parental hand on the knee or an arm around the shoulder. Eye contact is inevitably present as is open body language and a gentle tone of voice.
- Provide ideas and options: Parents wonder about possible solutions, providing ideas and options rather than suggestions, demands and advice.
- Remember who owns the problem: Parents gently remind their child, if necessary, that the child owns the problem.
- Honesty: Parents are honest about their own problems and history while not allowing the child to use that as an excuse for continuing with their own problem.
- Express empathy, not sympathy: Parents exude a stance of empathetic understanding for the child’s challenges while not rescuing or “buying” excuses.
These eight points provide the “how to do it” information, however, it is generally helpful to provide an example. As with all Love and Logic materials, we can provide a spot of opening conversation here just as it took place between mom and Robert. Unfortunately the printed word can’t really express the affection that seeps from the eyes and is communicated in tone of voice and touch:
“Robert, honey, is this a good time to talk with you for a minute?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“I have a problem that I have a great deal of trouble dealing with. I’ve had it for a long time. I even had it when I was a little kid. Do you know what I’m talking about?”
“Not really.” (He probably knows exactly what she’s talking about, but doesn’t want to rush into this weighty issue.)
“Well, it’s my weight. I absolutely do not like being overweight. But I’ve had the problem for many years and it’s very hard for me to exercise as much as I need to and cut down on what I eat. I go on all sorts of diets but I just don’t have the willpower, it seems, to follow through. But you know what Robert? I’ve always been impressed with all the things you can do when you put your mind to it. You have will power when you want it, and I think you could be a real leader some day. Maybe you could help me out. In fact, perhaps we can help each other out. Do you have some ideas on this?”
Mother and son discussed a number of options together. Although there is not room here to provide the exact transcription, the discussion included thoughts about going on early-morning runs together, buying a joint membership to the neighborhood exercise club for a couple of months and going together three mornings a week, bicycling together, doing research together about the foods that are least fattening and most healthy, and what might be secret, helpful and ridiculous questions they might ask each other when one or the other is thinking about having a second helping or snacking.
An exact conversation and more detailed information about how to handle a child’s weight issues (including eating disorders) is provided in the book “Parenting Children with Health Issues” by Cline and Greene, published by Love and Logic Press.
In this case, Robert and his mom decided to bicycle together early in the morning. Mom bought a car rack, and Robert surprised her by guiding her to paths around lakes that she didn’t know existed. Robert reveled in picking healthy foods for his mom and insisting that this was the only food she could eat!
They laughed at the secret and crazy sentences they picked to help each other at times of temptation: “Mom, pushing the plate away sure beats liposuction!”
And they both lost weight together.
From the book “Parenting Children with Health Issues: Essential Tools, Tips and Tactics for Raising Kids with Chronic Illness, Medical Conditions and Other Special Needs” by Foster Cline, M.D and Lisa C. Greene available online and bookstores. Dr. Cline is a well-known child psychiatrist, author, and co-founder of the popular Love and Logic parenting program. Lisa is the mother of two children with cystic fibrosis and a family life educator. For free audio, articles and other resources, visit http://www.ParentingChildrenWithHealthIssues.com.
© Copyright by Foster Cline MD and Lisa Greene. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.