How to talk to kids about weight — without fat-shaming them

Sometimes, even the most well-intentioned parent can instil a negative body image in their child in an attempt to keep them from gaining weight. In some cases, not only can that backfire and foster secretive eating behaviours in the child, but it can also create resentment and anger, experts say.

“Fat-shaming is rampant on social media, but to me, it happened within the four walls of my family home. And it infected my entire upbringing,” Donna Freydkin wrote in an essay for Refinery29. “[My mother] took it upon herself to, in her own words, ‘help me.’ That meant vigilantly monitoring every morsel that I consumed.”

In Freydkin’s case, the unrelenting scrutiny led her to eat secretively and seek out unhealthy foods. And while she says she has let go of the anger she felt toward her mother, she continues to struggle with accepting her body.

This kind of judgmental behaviour couched in concern is what Dr. Jillian Roberts, associate professor of psychology at the University of Victoria, describes as a slippery slope.

“You may not realize it, but when you focus on appearance and weight, instead of health and healthy habits, kids experience that as a shaming moment, even if that’s not how you intended it,” she told Global News. “Change the dialogue to one of health.”

She says to encourage kids to eat a balanced diet by following Canada’s Food Guide, and emphasize healthy eating habits and behaviours from an early age. This way, as kids get older and can make independent food choices, there’s a better chance that they’ll err on the side of something that’s beneficial for them.

“Self-regulation is also key,” Roberts says. “Teach kids not to eat past the point where their stomach is full, and discourage them from eating out of boredom or giving in to cravings.”

But part of how a child views their body has to do with the attitude a parent displays toward their own — it’s difficult to deter a child from calling themselves fat when that’s what their mother says about herself.

“It’s like a baton of unhealthy body image that’s passed from generation to generation. Parents need to be mindful and reflective of the language they use and reframe the dialogue,” Roberts says. “Say things like, ‘As a family, we need to eat better and exercise more.’ That’s reframing the conversation in health.”

She says it’s OK for parents to talk openly about their own health goals — just steer clear of using disparaging language.

“It’s fine to say things like, ‘Today I’m going to avoid eating sugar,’ or ‘I’m going to make sure I get in my 10,000 steps.’ But don’t say that you feel fat or ask your child if you look fat in a particular outfit.”

Of course, sometimes kids can get down on themselves even without negative feedback from their parents. In cases like that, Roberts says to have a positive conversation with the child around healthy living and a healthy mindset.

“Sit down with your kid and reinforce that you don’t use negative language to describe yourself or others,” she says. “Emphasize finding a solution, like changing eating habits or increasing activity, if needed. Tell them it’s not helpful to bring yourself down because it won’t lead to a solution.”