Conversations with Kids from the School to the Home by Elizabeth Weiner, LMFT
Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is an all too common and controversial discussion in schools across the United States.
However, implementation of screening programs across American schools is not typically paired with engagement of families and strategy development to support student’s healthy bodies.
Schools identify at-risk youth, sometimes inaccurately.
Students are given a “BMI report card” which only puts them at risk for a feeling of being “different” or “not good enough”. BMI is an acronym for Body Mass Index which is a number calculated from the height and weight of an individual. This number is not always reflective of the variations among individuals. According to the CDC, “It is important to remember, that BMI is not a direct measure of body fatness and that BMI is calculated from an individual's weight which includes both muscle and fat. Some individuals may have a high BMI but not have a high percentage of body fat.”
Ultimately, this “BMI report card” leaves youth only with a stigma of being overweight and very little support to develop and maintain healthy habits.
In an evidence-based review about strategies to reduce rates of obesity in schools published by Stockholm: Swedish Council on Health Technology Assessment, it was demonstrated that “two thirds of the studies fail to demonstrate a positive effect (which) may reflect the difficulty of achieving lifestyle changes in children and adolescents with school-based interventions alone that do not include the home environment, free time, and the community at large.”
In other words, we have to bridge the gap between information at school and conversations at home.
How do we do this?
Here are some useful tips…
1. Minimize discussion with your kids about your own weight or appearance unless it is in the context of health. Studies show that parents who talk about their weight with their kids raise youth who are more likely to diet and use unhealthy weight-control behaviors. Alternatively, those who communicated with their kids about healthy eating and behaviors, were less likely to use unhealthy weight-control behaviors.
2. We all make mistakes at times. Be patient with yourself as these habits are hard to break, especially when we live in a society so focused on physical appearance. Common mistakes include statements like, “I ate too much this weekend so I better hit the gym” or “I can’t eat that pizza. It’s so fattening”. A more appropriate way of modeling a healthy attitude about your body could be, “Exercise is part of my routine. It feels good” or “Pizza is a “sometimes food”. I can have some pizza today”
3. Do not single out your child by focusing on their weight. Make health a family priority. Explain that you want to live a long, healthy life together and you are implementing some family routines to encourage one another to be successful with this goal.
4. Ask questions about your child’s feelings about their body. Acknowledge and normalize the social pressures in adolescence to “look good”. Acknowledge and normalize the difficult task of adapting to a changing body in adolescence. Ask your child if they have witnessed this in their own peer groups. They won’t bring this uncomfortable topic up on their own usually. We need to make a space for this discussion.
5. Teach moderation, not abstinence. Food isn’t “good” or “bad”. Children will internalize these labels. They have developing brains which may interpret your words in very concrete ways. Their understanding of abstract ideas or “seeing the grey areas” is not fully developed. As mentioned earlier, fatty or sugary foods can be referred to as “sometimes foods”.
6. Normalize the enjoyment of eating. We all feel good when we eat satisfying foods. Eating is one of the many natural pleasures of life.
7. Don’t use food as a reward or punishment. Food is not something you earn. It is something you enjoy.
8. Monitor your child’s use of free time. Are your kids spending too much time with electronics? Most likely, yes. Are you spending too much time with electronics? Most likely, yes. Insist on a break and go walk the dog together or throw a ball together. Insist on the importance of activity and family time. You will be doing your family a big favor for years to come…