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What Happens When Parents Perceive Their Kids to Be Overweight

Parent and child

Children are more likely to gain weight when parents perceive them to be overweight. Here is why.


Today’s health programs endeavor to tackle obesity by making parents aware that their child is overweight. According to a new study, this widely used strategy might not be a good idea. It found young kids were more likely to pack on pounds during childhood if their parents perceived them to be overweight. “Parental perceptions may be something of a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said coauthor Angelina R. Sutin.

In the research published in the American Academy of Pediatrics, scientists followed more than 3,500 Australian children. It discovered those who were overweight at the age of 4 or 5 and whose parents considered them overweight gained significantly more pounds by the age of 13. This increase in weight was in comparison to those who were overweight but whose parents believed they were underweight or of normal weight. In addition, kids who were underweight or of normal weight also gained more pounds if their parents mistakenly believed they were overweight. The authors concluded, “Contrary to popular belief, parental identification of child overweight is not protective against further weight gain.”

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Study Results Beg the Question: “Why?”
When speculating on the reasons why the children gained weight, Sutin said one possibility was that the parents might have shamed them about their weight, a problem that would have led to overeating. A study in JAMA Pediatrics supports this postulation, as it found girls who were told they were “too fat” at the age of 10, regardless of whether they actually were, had a greater likelihood of being obese at the age of 19.

What Can Parents Do to Help Their Overweight Kids?
Most parents of overweight kids genuinely want to help them, but they may not know what approach to take. Every child longs to feel accepted and loved unconditionally. Therefore, how do you help a kid to lose weight without damaging their self-esteem? “Parents should talk to their children about what it means to be healthy, rather than focusing specifically on weight,” advises Sutin. The guidelines below can also help.

  • Dr. Phil advocates avoiding derogatory comments, as they will wound and anger children. Refrain from speech that will cause your kid to develop negative labels such as, “I’m just a pig.” Instead of criticizing, speak in an encouraging way that fosters self-confidence. Try to instill positive self-labels in your child like, “I am able to accomplish whatever I set out to do.”
  • Sometimes kids overeat to cope with stress. Try to identify stressors that have caused your child to turn to food for comfort.
  • Avoid fast food dining, and serve nutritious meals plentiful in fruit, vegetables and whole grains.
  • Be a good role model by eating reasonable-sized portions of nutritious food.
  • Have healthy snacks like apples or raw carrot sticks readily available. Don’t keep sugary beverages at home, and encourage your family to drink plenty of water.

Dr. Phil