Commenting On A Child’s Weight May Do More Harm Than Good

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Being a parent means having to make difficult choices. One of those choices you might have to make is whether to talk with an overweight child about weight.

If you don’t say anything, there’s the chance you may miss the opportunity to correct unhealthy habits before they become a life-long health issue. But, more and more evidence suggests that criticizing a child’s weight could potentially trigger something even more dangerous: an eating disorder.

A recent study published in the journal Eating & Weight Disorders builds on this evidence. The findings of the study indicate that no matter how well-meaning a parent may be, comments about a child’s weight are a significant early sign of future unhealthy dieting behaviors, binge eating, and other serious eating disorders. Additionally, these comments can reinforce a child’s negative self-image and stereotypes about weight that children are vulnerable to.

“Parents who have a child who’s identified as having obesity may be worried, but the way those concerns are discussed and communicated can be really damaging,” said Rebecca Puhl, deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut. “The longitudinal research shows it can have a lasting impact.”

In fact, the researchers say a parent’s comments about a child’s weight can have an impact on a child’s life for years.

The researchers say the impact can be especially significant for females, because “girls are exposed to so many messages about thinness and body weight, and oftentimes women’s value is closely linked to their parents.”

For the study, the team surveyed over 500 women in their 20’s and early 30’s about their body image. The survey also included questions about how often their parents commented about their weight when they were younger.

The results specifically showed that regardless of whether a woman was overweight, girls whose parents commented on their weight were more likely to have negative body image and believe they need to lose weight.

Dr. Brian Wansink, lead author of the study and director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, described the comments about weight as being a “scarring influence.”

“We asked the women to recall how frequently parents commented, but the telling thing was that if they recalled it happening at all, it had as bad an influence as if it happened all the time,” said Dr. Wansink, author of the book “Slim by Design.” “A few comments were the same as commenting all the time. It seems to make a profound impression.”

As a parent, it is natural to care deeply about your child’s health. But, as the research shows, sometimes a light hand is the best course of action. If you are concerned about your child’s weight, encourage healthy activities like exercise or active hobbies. However, be careful to not directly criticize your child’s weight and focus on building a positive self-image and self-esteem.

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