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How to Talk to Your Kids About Obesity

When your child is struggling with his or her size, you might be at a loss for words. But knowing exactly what to say can place your kid on a path to a healthier life.
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"I couldn't ignore it any longer," says Amy Barksdale of the Bronx, New York. She'd put off speaking to her 14-year-old daughter, Amada, about being overweight for nearly a year. "Amada needed to lose about 20 pounds," says Barksdale. "But she'd hang out with her friends after school eating chips and fries in front of the TV. I worried she was on her way to that kind of life." And Barksdale was right to be concerned.

One in three children in the U.S. are overweight or obese, a problem that will likely follow them into adulthood: Experts estimate 42% of Americans could be obese by 2030. Yet many moms, dads and even pediatricians put blinders on to avoid addressing the situation, not realizing that children want them to say something. Nearly 70% of kids feel their parents should talk to them about being overweight, according to a recent survey.

Barksdale discovered this when she finally sat down with her daughter. "Amada was waiting for me to bring it up," says the 46-year-old mom. "She knew she had to get healthy." Once you commit to a conversation, the difficult part is figuring out what to say. We asked experts to address your questions and concerns so you won't be left speechless.

I know I need to lose a few pounds. How can I bring up my kid's weight without sounding like a hypocrite?

Honestly, you can't. But you can make it clear you plan to lead by example from now on. "If you're not working on getting yourself healthy, your kids won't feel understood," says Lori Fishman, Psy.D., a pediatric psychologist in the Optimal Weight for Life Program at The New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center, Boston Children's Hospital. "Explain that the entire family needs to eat right and exercise—and that you're no exception."

Melanie Johnson of Vancouver, British Columbia, had this conversation with her family. "It's not fair to single out one member," says the 44-year-old mother of two. At age 10, her son lost 58 pounds on The Wellspring Plan, a fitness and nutrition program for young people with camps in the U.S. and U.K.; he is now 13, confident and slim. "If the entire house is filled with healthy meals and snacks, then it becomes the norm for everyone to eat well," says Johnson, who struggled with her own weight before losing 175 pounds. "I told my kids, 'Your obesity was not your fault. You ate what I gave you as a child. Now that I'm learning more about this, I understand that there are healthy changes we can all make together.' "

What if talking about it hurts my child's self-esteem?

Not having the talk could do the same, so choose your words wisely. "Kids already feel guilty about being overweight," says Joanna Dolgoff, M.D., a pediatrician and creator of Red Light, Green Light, Eat Right, a healthy eating program for children. Tanikka Price, 38, of Columbus, Ohio, noticed how self-conscious her then-14-year-old daughter, Kaissa, had become. "Having gone from a size 11 to a 14/16 between her freshman and sophomore year, she started walking around with her shoulders hunched and head down as if she were trying to be invisible," says Price.

The key is making this about quality of life—not appearance. "Tell them: 'You'll feel better in the morning when you wake up and have more energy throughout the day,'" suggests Rovenia Brock, Ph.D., a nutritionist and creator of Dr. Ro's Fit Kidz show. "That means there'll be more time for sports and friends." Price was sure to emphasize lifestyle instead of looks after Kaissa wrote in a journal they share that she wanted to quit being a cheerleader. "I asked her to consider how her stamina at practice changed from her freshman year to this, her sophomore year. She admitted she needed help," says Price. "So I made an appointment for us at a local children's hospital's healthy weight and nutrition clinic."

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