Right from the birth through one’s lifetime, body weight is one of those parameters here to stay. While it makes sense from the medical point of view that being obese does bring with it a cartload of health complications, the other end of the spectrum is also equally worrying, especially in the case of kids.
Children now, are exposed to one form of media or the other for a major part of the day. They are “connected”, are “in sync” with what’s happening around them, are “in tune” with things that are in vogue and out of vogue. They browse, play games online and more importantly, the internet is now increasingly being used as a medium of instruction. This is where the advertising industry steps in as a major influence.
Advertising does a lot more than just sell products or services. They create stereotypes. They sell values, images that are associated with adjectives like “beautiful” and these in turn, create a set of values (however flawed) that are associated with self-esteem and self-worth.
Children, especially adolescents are particularly vulnerable because they are inexperienced, easily impressionable and therefore, represent very easy pickings. They are easy to influence and manipulate and are easily swayed. Peer pressure works its own magic and all these influences put together form a very dangerous concoction – especially when viewing “weight loss” ads and “weight loss” potions being touted as “easy ways to lose weight and look beautiful”. Their self-worth, their self-image, their self-confidence levels are all inextricably interwoven with their looks and what society expects from them in terms of looks and this, in turn, begins to play with their minds about remaining slim and trim which in turn, often leads to teenagers turning to “cutting down on food intake” as a possible remedy.
As a parent to two children, I’ve always maintained, right from the very beginning that one of the prime attributes of parenting is keeping those channels of communication open. In the world of today, it is not just obesity that one needs to watch out for, in children and teens. Obesity is a visible threat which makes itself obvious and thus, easier to get in control and treat. The more dangerous factor preying on a lot of children and teenagers is the other end of the spectrum – eating disorders.
Be it obesity or eating disorders, parents need to keep those channels of communication open with their children – to keep them aware of these unseen dangers and many a times, to reassure and bolster their thoughts and spirits and keep them from straying down the wrong path.
When it comes to talking to kids about weight issues, a direct yet sensitive approach seems to work the best. I do know of some parents who simply prefer to avoid such issues altogether. Honestly, avoidance is not the solution here. Admittedly, discussing weight issues can be touchy but the sooner parents discuss these with children, the better, for both. Also, bringing up such issues would be a lot easier if those channels of communication are always kept open between parents and children – if there is a constant flow of communication both ways.
It would really help to not criticise a child or a teen for their weight issues. Criticising and blaming effectively shuts down communication. Also, it just makes kids more self-conscious about their bodies and lowers their self-esteem in their own eyes.
It would be a very good idea to tell the child/children/teens that we, as parents, love them – no matter what. It remains essential for us parents to remember that the goal of this project too, like the others undertaken as parents, is long term. It is important to raise an individual who is comfortable with himself / herself and for them to know that they are loved, no matter what.
It is important to talk to children about stress eating/boredom eating/comfort eating. While this may seem not important, fact remains that it is. It is yet another one of those issues that usually remains submerged below the surface and stays around like an itch that cannot be scratched away. People do “stress eat” and when under stress, people have a tendency towards eating “junk food” which satisfies that instant need for satisfaction. In children, it would help to talk to them and make sure there are no underlying issues at school (could be stress from studies, bullying etc) which are making them reach out compulsively for junk food as a “feel good factor”. Compulsive eating in children has also been associated with boredom or as a means of comforting themselves. Yet again, this just underlines the importance of parents not just being around children but taking an active interest in their lives, their interests, their problems, talking to them about it.
Age matters, when it comes to talking about body weight and taking appropriate action. e.g with a young child (upto the age of six or seven), weight can be managed by managing their diet, by controlling their intake of sugary food, junk food and by making sure there are plenty of opportunities for them to be physically active. Children between 7 and 12 have the ability to understand much more and are capable of making more informed choices about what they could eat and what they could do, in terms of activities. At this stage, communication begins to shape into a very important factor in decision making and in keeping the parent-child relationship healthy and open. Once children hit their teens, they have a set of ideas about how they look and how they want themselves to look. Most teens don’t like heavyset bodies and even normal bodies may start to seem “fat” to them. It is around this time that parents need to watch out for eating disorders because those tend to creep up on the teens themselves, are just as bad for health and are very likely to go unnoticed.
It helps hugely, making mealtimes (especially dinnertime) a family time. This helps on so many fronts. It becomes a good time for conversation to flow easily when the whole family is sitting down for dinner. It becomes “your time” as a family without any intrusions in the form of mobile phones or other devices to distract attention. As parents, it helps to model good eating habits when the whole family sits down for dinner together.
It helps to convey that for every person, loving themselves also means taking care of one’s own body and keeping it healthy. If this concept is in place, it is much more likely that children and teens will move towards making more healthy choices in terms of their diet, exercise options, staying active and fit.
Last but not the least, it helps for parents to be good role models. More than what parents say, children learn by looking at and absorbing parents’ actions. If parents are more inclined to eat healthy most of the time, the message carries itself far more effectively than just lecturing children on healthy eating.
We, as parents, should strive to try and instill healthy dietary and exercise habits, preferably in the form of good role models.
As W.E.B.Du Bois once said “Children learn more from what you are than what you teach”.
Gauri Venkitaraman dons many hats – a wife, a mom, a teacher and many more. Working as a full-time English teacher in HongKong, Gauri also raises and nurtures two terrors, affectionately known as The Nutty Siblings a.k.a Macadamia, a teen and Pecan, the ten-year old who behaves like he is fifteen. Gauri’s family means the world to her. Life is a lively roller coaster ride and we, as a family, aim to enjoy the ride together. http://tiny-tidbits.blogspot.hk/ is where Gauri pens down her thoughts and musings, in an attempt to preserve memories for posterity