The other day, I was sitting in my office with a mom who was, as she put it, “Finally facing my daughter’s weight problem.” As I often realize in my practice, mothers tend to be their own worst critics, and it is hard to realize when they need help with what to do next.

Weight issues can make people feel exquisitely sensitive. Parents want kids to feel good about themselves, and have difficulty facing the situation. One mom came to me when her 7 year old’s doctor told her she had to get her son to “eat right” after a checkup. The son had gained a lot of weight that year. She was horrified, because she and her husband have always been health food freaks, and never allowed their son to eat any junk food at all.

Another mother confessed to me that she had an easier time talking to her overweight 10 year old about sex than food, due to her own experience with an overbearing critical mother who had always put her on diets as a kid. She joked that her first experience with religion was in Weight Watchers meetings since they were in the temple!

The greatest step is that these parents are admitting that they need some guidance to figure out how to deal with their children’s eating habits. In working with families about food issues and in particular with overweight children, I have noticed that frequently these children’s temperaments are very intense, demanding and, at times, dramatic. While this is not always true, of course, it is with these intense children that parents often have the most difficulty setting limits around food, as they want to avoid the whining and yelling that can take place.

Given that food is such a sensitive issue, parents often let it go without realizing that simple limit setting is necessary to avoid compulsive eating habits. Here are some guidelines to help navigate this very complex and sensitive situation:

  1. Think about your own “food legacy;” the attitudes or habits you grew up with in regards to food and eating.
  2. Aside from your own behavior, what is your behavior with your child and his food? This is what is going to most directly affect his developing relationship with food.
  3. Do you have trouble setting limits with a child who is demanding and intense around food? Do you want to avoid a power struggle?

Many times children confuse hunger with other feelings (boredom, nervousness) and need to reset their signals in order to stop eating.

Here are tips to begin dealing with overeating as a habit

Start with an upfront, matter of fact attitude

“Eating healthy doesn’t just mean eating well nutritionally; it means eating the right amount for your body. Sometimes that means less, sometimes more.” You don’t have to eliminate treats and foods that other kids, eat all the time. Kids can lose weight eating french fries and ice cream on occasion. The main point is to eat less overall and re-train their systems to stop eating sooner. It will feel different at first and not what children are used to.

Begin to set some parameters around portions

If your child continues to demand food even after you know he has eaten a reasonable amount, institute some rules around waiting. Sometimes kids get used to overeating, and don’t feel full until they are stuffed.

Play a game, distract them, teach them about the body’s need to have time to send the signal to the brain that they are full

Teach them that feeling done, and not stuffed, is when they should stop eating. Food will always be there later.

Don’t worry too much about limiting treats and junk food

Set some reasonable boundaries and give kids the choice about when they wish to have the treat.

If they complain about being hungry when you reasonably expect they are not, have a matter of fact attitude, and help them to not be afraid of the hungry feeling

Make sure they have filled up on reasonable portions of all foods, including a treat, (to help with feeling done and sated, not deprived). Remind them again that they will eat later, tomorrow, etc.

If weight is a family issue, do this together

Play waiting games, show them that you are going to reset your own signals.

Avoid diets and deprivation

They backfire and kids want to eat what other kids eat.

Don’t be held hostage by whining and acting out behavior

Be firm. You are not depriving kids, just helping them re-program their body.

Addressing these issues sooner, rather than later, can put many kids’ minds at ease. If you use the right approach, they won’t feel that you love them any less. You are helping them to be healthy and change their eating habits for a lifetime. That is good parenting.

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