If your child is struggling with obesity and any associated mental health issues, you can empower them to reach and maintain a healthy weight while boosting their self-confidence. Encouraging your child to adopt beneficial eating habits and limit calorie-rich food choices is a great start. Also, help your child to be physically active, reduce screen time, and get adequate sleep.
Develop Healthy Eating Habits
Talking about nutrition and the importance of a balanced food intake for physical, emotional, and intellectual health can help your child know their options. Healthy eating tips include learning about dietary recommendations, food sources of nutrients, and diet-disease relationships.
Developing good eating habits should be approached as a family lifestyle change. Rachele McCarthey, MD, outpatient psychiatrist at Huntsman Mental Health Institute's Behavioral Health Clinic, points out that if parents ask their children to eat better or avoid certain foods, then everyone in the household also needs to do that. "It can be devastating if other family members get to eat treats or junk food," says McCarthey, who is also an assistant professor in the Division of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at University of Utah Health.
The goal for overweight children is to reduce the rate of weight gain while allowing normal growth and development. Children shouldn't be placed on a weight reduction diet without consulting a health care provider.
Encourage Physical Activity
Parents should demonstrate that regular physical activity can be fun and has many health benefits, including strengthening bones, decreasing blood pressure, helping with weight management, reducing stress and anxiety, and increasing self-esteem.
The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that the stigmatization of people with obesity is widespread and causes harm. Bullying and teasing obese children contributes to decreased physical activity, binge eating, social isolation, avoidance of health care services, and increased weight gain—worsening obesity and creating additional barriers to healthy behavior change. McCarthey recommends parents seek therapy and have a safety plan before working on weight concerns if a child is having suicidal thoughts.
Reduce Sedentary Time, Including Screen Time
Parents should limit the time children watch television, play video games, or participate in social media to no more than two hours per day.
The Child Mind Institute discusses the adverse effects of social media when a child's confidence is down and recommends parents take the following steps to ensure healthy social media participation:
- Focus on balance by stressing to your child the importance of participating in social interactions in person and devoting time for activities that help build identity and self-confidence.
- Stress the benefits of turning off notifications by encouraging your child to avoid engaging in apps that continuously push notifications and distract them from meaningful activities.
- Teach mindful use of social media by helping your child realize how much time they spend on social media and how it may make them feel stressed or unhappy.
- Model restraint and balance in your own social media habits by enjoying family time free of social media interruptions.
- Enforce phone-free time before sleep by designating bedrooms as phone-free zones.
Ensure Adequate Sleep
You may notice your child cuts back on sleep for homework, to watch TV, or to check their social media. If they don't get enough regular sleep, children may be at an increased risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke, poor mental health, and even early death.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), too little sleep is associated with obesity, partly because inadequate sleep makes us eat more and be less physically active. Children need more sleep than adults, and the amount varies by age.
Plan for Family Lifestyle Changes
McCarthey says parents should involve their children in the family's plan for lifestyle changes. Parents can focus on health aspects, talk about the future, and emphasize the need for children to care for their bodies so they remain healthy—physically and mentally—long into adulthood.