Families & the Community

Parents Afraid to Discuss Weight With Children, Study Finds

By Bryan Toporek — September 15, 2011 3 min read
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Despite the fact that one-third of U.S. children are now considered overweight or obese, a new study reveals that parents often hesitate to discuss weight with their kids.

The “Raising Fit Kids” study, conducted by the Sanford/WebMD Fit program, found that 22 percent of parents feel uncomfortable discussing the consequences of being overweight with their children.

And do you remember how much you squirmed when your parents gave you the “birds and the bees” talk? As it turns out, the parents of teenagers surveyed for this study were less comfortable discussing weight with their child than sex, smoking cigarettes, or taking drugs or alcohol. (Only sex was more uncomfortable to discuss than obesity for parents of kids ages 8 to 12.)

Instead, 19 percent of the parents surveyed believe that doctors should be the ones responsible for the healthy weight discussion with kids. To compare, only 2 percent of parents said doctors should be talking to kids about smoking, and only 1 percent thought it was the doctor’s job to talk to kids about sex, drugs, or alcohol.

Parents don’t appear oblivious to the consequences of obesity, however. According to the survey, 37 percent of parents thought at least one of their children was at risk of becoming overweight and considered obesity almost as much of a threat as alcohol and premature sexual activity.

“If you want to prevent obesity, you have to be talking to the kids who are normal weight, not just those who are overweight,” writes Dr. Hansa Bhargava, medical director of the Fit program, in the study. “There seems to be an all-around misunderstanding of this. Parents should be talking about healthy weight from the get-go, and the conversation should be going on everywhere—at home, in school, and with health-care providers.”

What has parents so reluctant to speak to their kids about the obesity problem, if they’re aware it exists? For one, parents often won’t broach the subject until their child is obviously overweight, psychologist Susan Bartell told WebMD. Some parents also fear that the obesity discussion could spark an eating disorder in their children.

To make matters worse, 72 percent of the 1,000+ kids surveyed said the obesity discussion would be more embarrassing to them than their parents. The findings come from Kelton Research surveys of 1,299 parents of kids ages 8 to 17 and of 1,078 kids ages 8 to 17, sponsored by the Fit program.

For parents struggling to start talking about weight with their kids, WebMD compiled a tips guide that may help ease any awkwardness. Bhargava suggests speaking with children about weight and healthy behaviors from an early age, and Bartell stressed that parents should be framing the conversation in a positive way.

From personal experience: Having weighed around 200 pounds at the age of 14, I was in the same position as some of the kids in this survey not all that long ago. And yes, conversations about my weight with my dad were not the most enjoyable moments of my childhood.

But those same conversations also served as motivation when I finally decided to do something about my weight and become more physically active. (As did some light-hearted ribbing from my dad, too.)

So, parents really should be talking with their kids about the consequences of obesity and what a healthy lifestyle entails. If parents aren’t having these conversations with their children, who will? And no, I will not be attaching a picture of myself from those days any time soon.

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The study, published online in the

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.