My Child Is Overweight…Maybe Obese. What Should I Do?

Is there anything so torturous and paralyzing than to see our children’s health decline, to wonder if it’s a result of something we did, or didn’t do, to cause the problem? To seek help from those who are supposed to know, and find the resources lacking, or outdated, or simply ineffective? And then to confront that nagging fear that we really have no idea how to fix this problem? No leads. No magic cure. Diminishing hope.  I’ve experienced all of these feelings (and more) raising my own three children, and especially my two boys, each of whom entered the world with a unique set of health challenges – some of which we are still trying to unearth and address. It’s a lonely path to walk, not because people aren’t eager to help and support us, but because no one seems to have any more wisdom than we do ourselves. Not even the experts.

It’s important to clarify here that I am not a medical professional. I am not a nutritionist or a registered dietitian. I am just a fellow parent, a friend, a person who spends a great deal of time reading and thinking about these issues…a person who wants to offer whatever help and support I can to those walking a similar path. As parents, we want our kids to live their best lives, full of vitality and good health. But what if they aren’t? What can we do? And specifically, what can we do when our children have gained a troubling amount of weight in a short amount of time, for reasons we can’t entirely identify or understand? I’ve spoken with more than one friend about this very topic in the last few weeks, and I’m guessing there are many more who could use some encouragement. I’m no expert, but I’m going to do my very best! Here are some thoughts to consider:

Step 1 – Breathe. Be kind to yourself. Your child’s weight is not a reflection of you as a parent. It is not a reflection of your child’s self-discipline or impulse control, worth or value. It is more a reflection of this crazy world we live in, the habits we have cultivated, and the misguided advice we’ve digested for decades. Addressing your child’s excess weight is a challenge that demands your full attention, but I truly believe it has a fairly simple (but not easy) solution. I believe you can see dramatic change in just a month’s time if you can identify the problem areas and commit to a well-organized plan. I also believe you have exactly what it takes to help your child re-claim good health. No one cares more about your child than you do! No one knows them better. With knowledgeable support and sound nutritional guidance, your family can produce some dramatic, maybe even life-altering results, in just a few weeks.

Step 2 – Start with the obvious. Take a long, hard look at what your child is eating. Specifically look for “foods with no brakes,” such as cereal, chips, popcorn, cookies, donuts, crackers, pretzels (yes, even pretzels!), soda, fruit juice, candy, and all varieties of fast food and convenience items. These are foods that are specially and purposely designed to encourage over-consumption, which means it should not surprise us in the least when our kids (or even we ourselves) devour half a bag of chips or a pint of ice cream or a sleeve of Girl Scout cookies without coming up for air. We are overfed, but undernourished. Billions of dollars are spent by huge corporations to ensure we nurture these exact poor habits. And let me burst your bubble – these corporations don’t care that their products are making our kids sick and overweight. They only care that you continue to buy them. Our kids deserve better and we are the only ones who can provide them with healthier options. You can eliminate the problematic foods all at once (like ripping off the band-aid…one and done), or you can do it slowly over time, explaining that once boxes/bags/containers are empty, they will not be replaced. And then STICK TO YOUR GUNS! Anticipate the struggle and link arms with your partner or spouse, firmly committing that you will not give in to your children’s whining or demands. They will get over it. Life goes on (and goes on quite nicely actually) without Goldfish and Lucky Charms and CapriSun and fruit roll-ups. Trust me on this. If you’ve eliminated the most obvious offenders and still don’t see progress, come talk to me.  Despite the lack of professional acronyms following my name, I feel very confident I can help you identify less obvious food triggers and potential sensitivities.

Step 3 – Evaluate their activity. Notice I said “activity” and not exercise. Your child doesn’t need to run sprints or enter the next kids’ 5K fun run, join you at spin class, or even sign up for youth soccer (although all of these are wonderful ideas in and of themselves). The point is, he or she simply needs to move! Make movement part of your daily routine and keep it fun. Here are some simple suggestions:

  • Walk to the bus stop instead of drive. We do this daily except when we’re running really late or the weather is just awful. My kids are so disappointed when we take the car! (So is the dog).
  • Play hide and seek after school instead of watch TV or play on the iPad.
  • Have bikes and scooters set outside the front door, or meet kids at the bus stop with these gadgets in tow. Even if this meets some resistance at first, I can almost guarantee you’ll be dragging them back inside for dinner once they get going. Kids thrive outdoors! We all do.
  • Visit the mall play place or a local bounce house when weather is bad. We also love the bookstore – just have a plan to avoid, or at least mitigate, the temptation of Starbucks and Chick-Fil-A. The goal in all these places is movement!
  • Use the weekends for fun family outdoor adventures. My husband commutes to the DC area all week, and the last thing we want to do on Saturday is load everyone in the car and drive far away. So…we stay local. Some of our favorite places are Alum Springs (what kid doesn’t love water and rocks and wooded paths?), Salamander Loop (you can make it short or long depending on your kids’ ages and abilities), Kenmore Park (my kids love climbing that steep rocky hill and then racing down the grassy side where the “bamboo forest” is), the Ron Rosner YMCA playground, and when we have extra time and great weather – a road trip to Culpeper where we can easily spend half the day at Yowell Park and the downtown farmer’s market. (It seems like there is always something fun happening in that quirky little town!) Find the places that get you moving and make you happy, and then visit them often.

Step 4 – Address their sleep habits. Good sleep does much more than keep our kids on an even keel emotionally. It is essential to their immune function, optimal hormone production, digestion, and general wellness. Cut back on screen time and sedentary projects and replace it with fresh air, enjoyable activity, and meaningful relationships. Say no to some things that keep them out too late and leave them feeling run down. Get them to bed on time and then enjoy watching them sleep soundly and wake up happy and energized.

Step 5 – Get them outside every day. Like sleep, Vitamin D from the sun is essential for growth, immunity, and proper hormone production. Don’t underestimate the importance of sunlight in your child’s health. Even 20 minutes outside can be the refreshing and invigorating kick in the pants your child so desperately needs. It will do you good, too!

Step 6 – Teach them to handle difficult and uncomfortable emotions appropriately. Resist using food as punishment or reward, or as a soothing mechanism – especially junk food. I know this is so hard! I am a mom, too, and I find myself slipping into these bad habits repeatedly. However, I’m aware of this tendency and am committed to doing better. Instead of food, offer a hug, a funny story, a good book, some one-on-one time, or a special outing (that doesn’t include frozen yogurt from Sweet Frog).

Step 7 – Make this a family endeavor. No one appreciates being singled out for a “flaw,” whether it is specifically labeled or not. We all have room for improvement as far as good health goes, so make it a family goal to make better choices from here on out. Don’t worry that January 1st has long since passed, or that there are still twenty-some days left in this month. Start tomorrow, start on a Monday, start with dinner tonight. Just get started.

One last note – and that is for parents of teenagers and young adults who struggle with extra weight. Truly, I feel for you. I don’t discount the possibility that I myself could be in your shoes one day. Your grown children have the freedom and money to fuel their bodies however they want, and to pursue whatever habits they desire. You cannot control them or force good decisions upon them. I think all you can do is continue to love them whole-heartedly, despite their bad choices, and set a healthy, positive example for them. Enforce healthy habits in your home and don’t apologize. Offer help and resources when requested, and perhaps locate an appropriate person (who is not mom or dad) who might be able to bend their ear.

As always, I invite your thoughts and questions. You can contact me in whatever way is most convenient for you, or simply post a comment online.