When my daughter was 4, I realized that she was internalizing my own insecurities about weight after giving birth to her little brother. My “baby weight” was not coming off as quickly as it had with my three older children and I talked about it, in front of her, a lot. She saw my excitement when a new scale to track my weight loss arrived and quickly started weighing herself every day. At first, I thought it was adorable that she was intimidating me. That changed quickly when, after hopping off the scale one afternoon, my very skinny toddler told me she was fat. After that, I stopped talking about weight in front of any of my kids and started weighing myself only when my children weren’t present.
However, I can’t stop others from talking about weight in front of my children, and that’s worrisome. My daughter is now in middle school and a Girl Scout. Like most tweens and teen girls, she and her friends care about their appearance. As they continue to navigate their place in the world, not quite children and not yet adults, they listen and learn from the grown-ups around them.
I was horrified when she returned from a Girl Scout cookie booth sale and told me that “around 30” people told her and the other Scouts that they “shouldn’t buy cookies because they were trying to lose weight.” She seemed confused that most of them bought cookies anyway, although a few left without Thin Mints after leaving a donation for the troop.
Privately, I wondered why anyone, let alone “around 30” people, thought it was appropriate to make comments about weight in front of a bunch Girl Scouts. Since the association between Girl Scout cookies and weight was referenced over and over again during the couple of hours the girls spent selling cookies, I worried that my daughter and her friends might no longer enjoy their cookies as much, or would stop eating them altogether.
Why talking to children about weight is dangerous
According to Dr. Ada Lee, a pediatric gastroenterologist and co-director for the Healthy Weight and Wellness Center at Stony Brook Children's Hospital in New York, weight should never be a topic of conversation with children “if the child has a healthy lifestyle and is growing on their curve.” She stresses that “children do listen, whether the conversations are directed at them or just around them,” so even discussions about weight around children or off-handed comments like the ones made at the Girl Scout cookie booth can have a negative impact.
Talking about the need to lose weight in front of children “sets an early precedent that dieting is normal, and [that] doing whatever it takes to achieve thinness is necessary,” says Sarah Herstich, a licensed clinical social worker who runs the Reclaim Collective Nutrition and Therapy Center. She adds that “kids who are exposed to body and weight talk and dieting behaviors are more likely to diet themselves,” which is the largest risk factor for developing an eating disorder. The research bears this out. Studies have shown that about a quarter of 5-year-old girls express concern about their weight; this number rises to 50% for girls ages 8 to 13. Taylor Arnold, a nutritionist and pediatric dietitian who runs Growing Intuitive Eaters, emphasizes that the problem impacts boys too, although more research needs to be done to better understand how they are affected.
Although adults who talk about weight around children may mean well, “talking to kids about weight can backfire because they may begin to feel self-conscious, anxious or ashamed of their bodies," explains Amy Henke, a pediatric psychologist at Children’s Hospital New Orleans. "These feelings can contribute to the development of eating disorders such as anorexia." This danger isn’t theoretical. “Eating disorders in children, such as anorexia and bulimia, have dramatically increased in recent years. Focusing on weight and body image is a risk factor,” Henke adds.
There are other consequences that are far-reaching. Even if a particular child isn’t directly impacted by talk about weight, it may affect how they treat others. “Weight bullying in school is a huge problem,” says Arnold. “Kids internalize these biases as kids, which then percolate into society as fatphobia and weight stigma."
What should a parent do if they have concerns about a child’s weight or eating habits?
If parent notices concerning changes in a child’s eating habits or is otherwise worried about their child’s weight, Lee recommends talking to a pediatrician before talking to the child. That’s because “our culture and past experiences with food, and our own weight, skew our thoughts on what is considered too much, too little or not eating the right things,” and a parent’s concern may be unfounded, explains Lee. It’s important that a parent figure that out before talking about their concerns with their child since there may not be a problem. But if there is a problem, it’s important that it be addressed under medical supervision.
Henke says that parents should also talk to their child’s doctor “any time a child expresses interest in dieting, begins to limit certain types of foods or talks negatively about their body or others’ bodies.” That’s because these are all signs of “disordered eating." Parents should also alert their child’s doctor if they notice “significant changes in diet, rapid and unexpected weight loss, unexpected or intense interest in exercise [or] eating in secret,” she adds.
If parents have a concern, it’s important to talk to their child’s doctor immediately. “Do not be afraid to intervene early. Do not tiptoe around the issue. Seek additional evaluation and intervention from a mental health provider or your pediatrician. Eating disorders thrive in secret and shame and parents should not be afraid to get involved early,” Henke tells Yahoo Life.
If a doctor is concerned about a child, Taylor explains that they may not focus on the number on the scale. Instead, providers may want to rule out medical conditions and discuss “eating behaviors, sensory needs related to food, access to food including food insecurity, movement and play, diet culture and identifying pediatric feeding disorders.” A pediatrician can provide support and put a team in place to make sure a child gets the help they need.
When is it OK to talk to kids about their weight?
There may be times it’s necessary to talk to children about their weight, but these discussions should typically take place only in extreme situations where children who are extremely under or overweight have “fallen off the growth curve,” Lee says. If such a discussion does need to take place, it should happen only after consulting with a medical or mental health professional.
In the rare cases a parent does talk to a child about weight, conversations “should be positive and supportive toward the child and not focusing on a number or certain body shape but just a healthy lifestyle,” says Lee.
Moreover, these discussions should not “cause them to feel ashamed or embarrassed in any way,” says Flora Sadri-Azarbayejani, a medical advisor at Psyclarity Health. “The goal should be to help the child make lifestyle changes that will benefit their health and well-being … parents should emphasize healthy eating habits and regular physical activity,” she adds.
What parents should talk about instead of weight
While parents should normally not talk to children about their weight, that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t talk to their children about their health. “We can, and absolutely should, teach our kids about their bodies, about how to keep them strong and nourished and about how to fuel them,” says Herstich. “It is very possible to do this without … discussing weight.”
Instead of discussing weight, “parents can best talk to children about healthy eating habits,” says Allison Chase, the regional clinical director for Eating Recovery Center. She recommends broaching the topic by explaining to children that it’s important to eat healthy food so their bodies and brains will stay healthy, and they can continue to participate in activities they enjoy.
However, Lee says that parents should not ignore the issue of weight altogether. Parents can "acknowledge that everyone has a different body shape,” she says, while noting that it’s not necessarily body shape or size that matters. “One person with the same weight as another may be considered healthier based on their lifestyle and habits,” says Lee.
What if someone else talks to your child about weight?
If, despite a parent’s best efforts, someone does make a comment about weight to or near a child the parent “should ask their child how the comment made them feel,” says Lee. “If it was a hurtful comment, validate [the] child’s feelings and acknowledge the nature of the comment is not acceptable,” she recommends. Then, parents should reassure their child about “their strengths and focus on their health,” Lee says. Henke adds that parents can protect their child by “letting them know you don’t … judge people based on their body shapes and sizes."
If you aren’t sure whether or not it’s OK to say something about weight to a child, remember that “children are still developing and can be easily influenced by what adults say about them”, says Sadri-Azarbayejani.
This article was originally published on March 7, 2023 and has been updated.