Apr 18, 2012

Tween Obesity – Stop Sugarcoating It, America

Fat discrimination is everywhere, and if you’ve ever known a tween who grew up overweight, it really is no fun. Kids target other kids who are overweight for a variety of reasons, including avoiding being targeting themselves. Georgia’s “Strong4Life” campaign shows exactly how difficult it is to suffer from childhood obesity, and the message is powerful, exactly how it is intended. Georgia knows their tactic of bullying is risky, but they are willing to be controversial if it means they will reduce their ranking as the second “fattest” state for children in the nation.

In the print and TV ads, tweens reveal how painful it is to get picked on by other kids, while others ask their parents “Mom, Why Am I Fat?” The answers are found via the campaign website, oversimplified and things we all know already: diet and exercise. School programs have already failed at trying to reduce childhood obesity, so what’s next? The fact is that the research shows that dieting actually leads to weight gain, and the identification/treatment of emotional eating issues along with lifestyle changes are more sustainable way to combat childhood obesity.

One of the biggest challenges of parenthood is feeding your child: figuring out if your child is eating the right foods at the right times, for all of the right reasons. It’s a daunting task from birth and gets more complicated as nutrition needs grow and change, where well-intended parents use food to soothe and calm, and it becomes a symbol of love and care. As children grow, food becomes a substitute for that “love and care.” Georgia’s ads suggest that obesity is a family issue to resolve, even though it’s cause is much more complicated than that.

As your child ages, feeding becomes more complicated when you notice that your child eats for “emotional” reasons. Feeling anxious, sad or angry, tweens reach for food when they are feeling stressed or alone. Sometimes they may eat out of boredom, becoming a welcome companion when no one else is available. Eating can cover up for insecurities that are not verbalized, an instant fix for what feels unfixable. Soon, weight gain from the extra nutrition gets more complicated when peers or family make comments about the changes in the tweens body. Food further comforts, and the cycle continues.

So, what do you as parents? Identification of emotional eating patterns is essential in interrupting the once helpful, but unhealthy behaviors. Just because your tween isn’t sobbing in their room everyday, does not mean that they are not depressed or anxious. Depression and anxiety can exhibit in a variety of forms from isolation to risk taking behaviors to agitation. Do not dismiss their reactions even if they don’t want to talk to you about their problems. When you stop lecturing and become an active listener, watch their behaviors as well as listen to the conversations they have with those around them, you will learn what your tweens experience is of the world.

How to discover if your child has an eating issue? Become a well-intended investigator. Has food gone missing from the home? Is your child eating when they are not hungry, or just finished a meal? Is there recent weight gain following an observable increase in nutrition intake? Has their been a change in the family, or their environment that was stressful? Disordered, emotional eating comes from irregular eating patterns that are not based on hunger/fullness. Untreateddisordered eating turns into an eating disorder when patterns become solidified and interfere with daily functioning, or medical issues arise as a result of the behaviors. An assessment by a professional can help determine the level of difficulty in your child, as well as provide both support for the behaviors, along with accountability to get through them and into a better way of coping with emotions.

Parents can help support tweens even if your child doesn’t exhibit emotional eating patterns. The following provides some ways in which parents can help to encourage their child’s mental health and create a more connected relationship!

To get your tweens feeling better and more confident, you have to get moving. Set limits on “indoor” time and encourage them to get out of the house to play with friends. Find a physical activity that the whole family can enjoy (i.e. hiking, soccer game, beach volleyball, etc.) Walk as many places as you can, park far away from your destination at shopping centers. Organized sports will not only promote health, but cooperation in teams and boost self-esteem.

Offer a variety of foods and snacks in your home, and encourage balanced eating: ie. four fruits/vegetables to “earn” desserts. Emphasize food as fuel, and a variety of foods to provide the necessary energy they need to grow from tweens into teens. Providing proper nutrients to your body should be as necessary as teeth brushing, and make it on the same priority level.

Make it a priority to sit down with your family for dinner. Turn off the tv, and find out about your tween, all that they are learning and who they are spending time with. Avoid any emotionally charged topics and you’ll reduce emotional eating. Pay attention to how and what your tween eats, and you will learn a lot about their relationship with food and their body.

Focus on health and building self-confidence, not weight. Weight gains/losses are inevitable part of the tween growth process, and it should be your pediatricians focus to track and monitor these changes over time. Make long-term health a priority in your family, and reinforce how much better your tween feels when they are eating a balanced diet. Do not give food as rewards for good behavior, focus on internal qualities reward for effort and completion with verbal compliments to build self-confidence. Verbal praise and approvals go a lot further than an ice cream for a job well done!

Stop nagging your tween to change their habits, or you will make it worse. Model good behavior and eliminate the word “diet” from your vocabulary. Be brave enough to remove the scale from your home. Provide them healthy foods in pre-bagged sizes (yes, that you’ve prepped yourself) for convenience on the go snacking. Albeit tedious and time consuming, worth it if your tween will make a better choice.

Advocate for your tween when they are being teased or bullied at school. These are far longer lasting and more detrimental to emotional health, and a main reason for people developing eating disorders. Stress causes people to GAIN weight. Reduce the stress in your home and environment, and you’ll cause your tweens not only to feel better, but reduce emotional eating as well.

Encourage body diversity. Do not make comments about other people’s external appearances, and focus on your tween’s internal self-worth. Promote self-esteem and body satisfaction, and teach children of all sizes to value themselves and their health. Plus, it’s just not nice to say unkind things about other people.

“Stop sugarcoating it, America.” It’s time to change our thoughts and attitude towards childhood obesity, and you should be applauded at taking action towards the mental health of your tweens. After all, isn’t the goal to have happy, healthy kids?

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