Dear health-conscious parents and adults,
There has been a lot of uproar lately about the new Weight Watchers — Kurbo app, designed for children and adolescents 8-17 to promote weight-loss, calorie counting (via the “points system”) and a “healthier lifestyle.”
I absolutely want us to educate, inspire, and support children from a young age to live their healthiest lives. However, being a chubby child who dieted all my childhood and young adult life, and now being an eating disorder professional (psychotherapist), I think it’s important to do some education on the damage of this philosophy behind “weight-loss.” I’ve seen it first hand, and it’s been proven again and again, that childhood weight-loss efforts can lead to or often worsen disordered eating and body image issues!
Yes, children who are in a larger body can and do get bullied, or othered, or made fun of and outcast. So do children in smaller bodies. Childhood is tough! However, the solution is not to put a child on a diet and “fix” their weight to fix their life.
Dieting, aka restricting caloric intake, labeling foods as good and bad, promoting starvation and hunger, demonizing certain food groups, and putting value on being thin are detrimental, especially to a child’s mind.
Adolescence is actually going on in the brain until about 24/25 years of age. The prefrontal cortex is still forming and solidifying, so logic, rationale, and reasoning skills are not exactly at their finest.
If you teach a child that their value is derived from their weight, looks, and body size, we are promoting a society of disordered eaters, and people who hate their bodies. Large corporations and the beauty industry LOVE this.
Instead, I believe that nutrition should be looked at as fuel, hunger and fullness needs should be explored and tracked, education about food should be prioritized, and, the focus should not be on weight loss or weight gain.
When a child is told they need to lose weight, they feel shamed, and “bad.” They will engage in any behavior (without the rationale of truly understanding healthy and unhealthy behavior), and try to “fix” themselves. A child is constantly seeking acceptance, validation, love, connection, support, safety and so on. These emotional needs can not be met if they are in a state of shame.
Adolescents and children will develop coping skills with their best thinking, and try to reach the goal of being “thin.” They think (and most likely have been told) that if they were thin, then all their worries would go away. Yet the damage is already done. Being thin will not heal wounds of being bullied, shamed, blamed, and rejected for your body. Only love, acceptance, proper education, emotional attunement, validation and understanding can do that!
Instead of telling a child they are fat and they need to lose weight:
*Patiently and Lovingly observe their relationship to food and movement
*Seek the support of an Eating Disorder professional to assess their relationship to food
*Identify healthy/unhealthy coping or behaviors
*See how they interact with others
*Gently inquire about what they think about themselves, their bodies, their abilities, their talents, and more…
*Listen to what other’s have called them, told them, or triggered them to feel
*Ask about their favorite foods, and why they enjoy them, how they make them feel, etc.
*Inquire about how they would like to look and feel? and why? Are there false promises of fitting in, being liked, etc that they associate with being thin?
*Support them in embracing all of their talents, gifts, strengths — support them in identifying what they are passionate about and what they are good at.
*Explore nutrition with a professional who can advise a specific plan for the child’s individual health and wellbeing (weight loss is not the goal here — the child feeling empowered and safe in their body at any weight is the goal).
*Be mindful of how you may impact the children/adolescents in and around your life. How do you speak about yourself, your body, and food?
*Promote a positive, accepting, and supportive relationship to weight and health at every size.
*Encourage mindfulness techniques, and awareness around hunger and fullness
*Encourage labeling emotions on a day-to-day basis, as well as labeling triggering emotions that may lead to unhealthy relationships with food.
These are some tips that can be helpful in supporting healthy self-esteem and healthy relationships in adolescents. These are also valuable skills and tools to be used by EVERYONE!
Nothing can substitute for individual or family psychotherapy, however, anything you do to encourage another’s emotional wellbeing, mental stability and mindfulness practices is a good place to start.
Please talk and listen to your teens. They are craving attention (especially when they push you away), they are craving understanding, support and patience. They don’t need you to talk AT them, or “parent-splain” to them. They need curiosity, patience, creativity, and support in being the healthiest, most individuated versions of themselves.
Thank you for considering.
ilona varo, LMFT (Therapist and Coach)