How Can I Help My Overweight Child?

Parenting Expert Jan Faull, MEd, advises parents on how to help their young children lose weight and maintain a healthy weight.

Q. I've been battling my 5-year-old son's weight problem for two and a half years. I'm getting discouraged and I feel like a failure as a mom. I went to a dietary aide and I've started cooking healthier, baking and not frying, more fruits and less snack cakes, very little soda. He weighs 68 pounds. I had an eating disorder as a teenager so being overweight is a scary thing for me. I just want him to be healthy and not be made fun of. He is so active, and his dad and I are not big, though many in our family are. Is there a chance this has nothing to do with me as a mother and he may outgrow it? How do you explain to a 5-year-old that he can't eat at McDonald's because of a weight problem?

A. It's impossible to know if your son's weight is related to the food you've offered and that he's eaten the first five years of his life or not. He may outgrow his weight problem, but we can't predict the future.

You've done much that's right to helping him on the road to a healthy body. You've changed by not offering him fried foods. You're giving him more fruits and vegetables, fewer snack cakes, and little soda. Now take your efforts one step further. Eliminate all sweets and soda from the food the family eats. When he complains about or questions why you're not buying sweets or soda, simply respond by saying, "In this family we no longer eat those foods."

Then, in small doses, teach him about nutrition. Tell him that soda and sweets and fatty foods from fast food restaurants are not good for him, or anyone, no matter their size or body type. Teach him to read the labels on foods, reading the calories and fatty content. Let him know the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables and proclaim how delicious they taste.

Tell him that some families choose to eat unhealthful foods but your family's mantra is: We eat foods that are healthful and tasty. When he's a little older, explain to him about your experience as a teenager with an eating disorder. Also teach him about different people's body types and that he may have inherited the tendency to be overweight so he needs to learn to eat differently than people who were born with the tendency to be average weight.

It's true that overweight children are often the victims of bully's mean-spirited attacks. Have your son practice a quick comeback if he experiences teasing and harassment because of his size. Teach him a short retort such as, "I'm big and strong both in my mind and body. I was born that way." Then demonstrate that he's then to turn and walk in the opposite direction of those making the unkind remarks. This approach is usually all it takes to ward off the verbal tactics of children who find joy in bullying.

Everyone needs to learn how to eat and exercise to stay healthy. You're doing a good job helping your son manage his unique body. In time you will turn this responsibility over to your son. By age 10 he should be able to monitor his own food intake and exercise opportunities.

When he goes through puberty you'll be faced with another process of teaching and explaining about the changes that are occurring with his body. It's then that he might either grow tall and lean or possibly gain more weight temporarily until he settles into his adult weight which will most likely be similar to yours and his dad's.

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