Reader Asks: How can I help my chunky kids slim down?

husky

By Angelica Shiels, Psy.D.

A reader asks, My kids are chunky. Not fat, but pudgy enough to need husky jeans! How do I address this and help them slim down a bit without giving them body image issues?

Well, mom-who-wants-to-help, I’m glad you write-in with this question, because your concern is certainly common and relatable to many parents. So grab a cup of coffee, settle-in, and get ready for a somewhat in-depth answer.

Your kids are definitely lucky to have a parent who is sensitive enough to consider the dangers of instilling “body image issues,” when addressing such a touchy, yet important, topic.  Yes, eating disorders are on the rise for both boys and girls, and the last thing kids need is the voice of mom in their ears adding to the existing onslaught of societal body-image pressure.

In fact, before I say ANYTHING about what eating and exercise habits to instill in your kids, I want to take a moment to explain how to avoid the pitfalls of inadvertently contributing to poor body and self-image in your children:

A complication arises when “the voice of mom” can be powerful even if mom never even opens her mouth. Not instilling body image issues means not betraying your own arbitrary pursuit of thinness/control, even inadvertently.  (No, I’m not saying you necessarily have body image issues.  But unless you just dropped in from Planet-Accept-All-Shapes-And-Sizes, I’d assume, like the rest of us, you have some.) So, don’t let the kids ever see you on a scale.  Don’t let the kids ever see you groan because it’s January 1st, and your jeans are fitting a little tighter.  If the kids catch you staring at the cereal label, let them know you are making sure there is fiber and calcium, not that you are horrified that each cup of marshmallow goodness has 200 calories.  When you go to the pool, rock a swim-suit with NO cover-up, and get in the damn water and have some confident fun with your kids…. You get the idea.

In fact, strike the following words from your vocabulary immediately: Calories, fat, weight, diet, size, etc.  Again, you get the idea.

There is a reason I used the phrase, “arbitrary pursuit of thinness” instead of “body image issues.”  The one thing you DO want to model for and teach your children is maintaining a “healthy lifestyle”. Ensuring calcium and protein and vitamins and exercise are a part of your childrens’ lifestyle is not arbitrary.  These behaviors are meaningful in that they ensure that their bodies are strong, energetic, and healthy, and these healthy habits even contribute to emotional well-being.  There are plenty of reasons to model and teach “health” as the lifestyle goal that have nothing to do with maintaining a thigh-gap.

Regarding the goals of “healthy lifestyle” versus “a certain size,” I would encourage you to sincerely consider your own goal for your children.  I strongly suggest that you make sure that your aim is for them to be healthy, not for them to lose weight for the sake of no longer wearing a husky jean.  If your goal is for the superficial women in your neighborhood moms group to stop rolling your eyes when you mention your size 10H children god-forbid eating Halloween candy or having a birthday cupcake, consider abandoning your pursuit of a certain image.  And also consider slashing those women’s tires surrounding yourself with a more accepting crowd.  You can promote health as opposed to weight loss all you want, but if your intention is for your kids to put forth a thinner image that is more acceptable to society, those kids will sniff it out faster than you can say, “put that french fry down.”  And, in the event that they realize their mom has such an intention, their self concepts WILL suffer.  Healthy people do come in different shapes and sizes, and if your kids are getting lots of exercise and nutrients and only occasionally eating empty-calorie-junk, and still wearing husky jeans, so be it.  Then your aim will be to teach your children the following phrase:  Screw you, society of lies; I am beautiful and lovable just the way I am. (a phrase that can only be convincingly taught if you yourself believe it.)

Of course you know that you don’t want to impart “an arbitrary pursuit of thinness” or feelings of inferiority for not being “thin enough” onto your children.  But there are two more things that you should be aware-of in your management of this situation: You absolutely want to avoid imparting an over-pursuit of control and you also want to avoid inadvertently exacerbating any stress-eating that your children may be engaging-in.

Regarding avoiding the over-pursuit of control and anxiety issues surrounding health, eating, and exercise:  The quickest way to get a kid obsessed with counting calories and minutes on the treadmill to her detriment is to freak out because her friend’s mom fed her Mc Donalds one time or she got cupcakes at school for Jimmy’s birthday. Basically, as you model, imitate, and teach your kids about health, make sure you have a flexible, as opposed to rigid, mentality and expectation about the behaviors.  This may be a controversial statement, but as someone who has worked with many kids, teens, and families with unhealthy attitudes about eating, I say a resounding “ALL THINGS IN MODERATION.”

Modeling and teaching your kids about HEALTH means guiding them to develop a healthy relationship with food and a healthy relationship with exercise.  Kale is not perfect; Pizza is not evil; Skipping a day of exercise is not horrific, and exercise does not have to be a chore that takes place at the gym.  Like any relationship, sometimes interactions serve the purpose of fun, and sometimes the interactions serve an actual goal.  Therefore, eating a piece of cheesecake is not an opportunity for guilt and anxiety.  It is something to be enjoyed as a once-in-a-while yummy exerience.  Model this for your children.

This brings me to my second concern:  Stress eating.  Not coincidentally, the children that I have seen in therapy that most-often go for the junk-food with empty calories are the children who are experiencing the most stress.  Eating is comforting, and the ironic thing is, the more you tell someone to restrict their eating, the more they feel pressure that compels them to seek comfort.  There is a reason that for months after my college boyfriend told me “you could stand to lose some pounds,” whenever I thought about his words, all I wanted to do was shove my face with chips.  And there is a reason that every time I thought about studying for the psychology licensing exam, instead of cracking open a book, I helped myself to a bowl of ice cream.  Eating threatens to temporarily soothe tension, boredom, stress, sadness, and all kinds of other emotional discomforts.

So of course, never, ever, even hint at those kids having to “lose weight.”  And, if you think your kids may be going for the chips out as a way to quell their tension or frustration with something you can help, make sure you address it.  My two youngest sons eat when they are bored (which is a type of stress; It is an icky feeling that they want to get rid of.), so I suggest activities for them whenever I see that they are scrounging around in the cabinet.  And I offer the question that they will hopefully someday ask themselves, “Is your tummy hungry for food, or are you bored?”  Many of the kids I have seen in therapy are in households where their parents fight a lot, there have been many moves, much uncertainty, pressure about grades, sibling rivalry, etc, which are all environmental factors that lead to comfort-eating.

So, in summary, here are the practical ways that you can address this issue:

1)  Make sure your intention is to instill the pursuit of health, not thinness, into your children, and realize that even some healthy people wear husky sizes.

2)  Abandon any statements or behaviors that suggest your own high regard for thinness. Throw away your scale and model confidence and comfort in your own skin, even if you have just gained 5 pounds around the holidays.  Get your swimsuit on and have fun with them in the pool, even if you don’t think your body is perfect.

3) If you are modeling healthy behavior, you will have almost all nutritionally dense food, meals, and snacks in your house, prioritize eating these foods (instead of greasy restaurant food) for the most part, pack your young kids’ lunches with this in mind, and plan individual and family activities that promote movement and exercise AND fun.  You will speak about having whole grain toast for breakfast because it gives you energy to run around, and milk with your lunch because it makes your bones strong.  You will never talk about the fat or calorie content in a food. You will also model “all things in moderation” and a healthy “relationship” with food/exercise to avoid instilling any control/anxiety issues surrounding food and exercise. Eat that cheesecake in front of your kids every once in a while, and don’t show them any guilt or anxiety.  Enjoy going on hikes and taking dance classes, because your relationship with exercise can be FUN.

4)  Minimize and prevent stress-eating by minimizing the stress in your household, and suggesting alternative activities that your children could engage-in if you notice that they are eating to sooth uncomfortable feelings (boredom, anger, sadness, insecurity, tension, etc.).

So, mom-who-wants-to-help, I’m glad you asked me this question, because there are many parents in your position.  I have made the assumption, of course, that you know what “nutritious” foods are, and if you don’t, you can consult a nutritionist.  The purposes of this post was to address psychological considerations to your efforts, which, in my completely-biased opinion, are the most complicated and possibly even the most-important.  Best of luck with your continued parenting and consideration of the whole child, and not just the size of her jeans.

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