According to recent government studies, an increasing number of children in this country, many of them quite young, are overweight. For many of these children, there’s not only the health risks that go along with excess weight, but also the taunts and discrimination they may face from other children, and sometimes even adults.

If you have an overweight child, there are a number of things you can do to help him or her face the problem of excess weight, and face down the potential consequences of discrimination based on weight:

Feed your child positive thoughts. Tell your child you love him or her, that physical perfection isn’t the goal, that everyone is different and that your child is so much more than his or her weight.

Be a model yourself, both in dealing with your child and with others in the world. Don’t condemn people for how they look or for being overweight. Don’t condemn yourself if you have your own weight problem.

Children learn from what they see and experience. Point out that people in real life don’t look the same as models on TV or in magazines because they don’t have make-up artists and photographic touch-ups. As a parent, help your child fight the media and cultural bias that says we all have to be thin and perfect.

Encourage your child to talk about feelings and become aware of how emotional triggers can lead to overeating. Foods can make us feel calmer, serve as a reward, hide anger and let us feel powerful or in control. Teach your child that feelings have a purpose and serve as a clue to what is really needed, and that turning to food often simply hides finding the right answer. Give examples.

If your child doesn’t feel good enough, what would help him or her to feel more self-assured? Teach your child reality checks and problem-solving techniques that don’t include food.

Train your child to talk back to the negative messages that he or she perceives. Emphasize that this can sometimes be done silently to himself, while at other times it’s okay to be assertive. Teach your child problem solving skills that can help him or her react in a positive way to teasing or criticism.

Don’t become the food police. Don’t hover over your child, restrict food choices or make your child report to you what he eats. Such actions only lead to stronger feelings of being deprived, different and controlled. They can help lower self-esteem and bring behaviors of hiding or binging on foods.

Let your child choose foods by being part of the shopping experience. Read labels to young children for sugar, fat, carbohydrates, and other nutrients, or ask your older child to read the label himself.

Teach your child that eating is about choices and help him or her understand the basics of healthy eating. When he wants something that’s not so healthy, don’t automatically say no. Instead, say something about not always having to eat healthy. Buy it and don’t say another word. Don’t send the message that he’s bad because he’s not eating the foods he thinks you want him to eat.

Make exercise fun, not grueling. Take a gentle walk after dinner. It’s both exercise and an opportunity to talk that both of you will treasure as your child gets older.

Make it fun and increase the aerobic benefit by adding bouts of skipping, holding hands and running, but don’t try and be sneaky and turn it into a power walk or run. Your child will see what you’re doing and get the same old messages.

Make dinner a family affair around the table. Everyone should have reasonable portions. Don’t make differences between what siblings or parents can eat based on their weight. If anyone is eating too fast, ask everyone to slow down and participate in the conversation.

Children, like adults, are more vulnerable to developing weight problems after going through trauma or loss, such as a death, divorce, illness or a major environmental change. If there are strong emotional and behavioral changes, or dramatic changes in eating habits, consider getting professional help.

– Brenda Crawford-Clark is the author of Body Sense: Balancing Your Weight and Emotions and hosts the websites ForgetAboutDiets.com and RecoveryPaths.com.

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