The Overweight Child

Dear Dr.T.,

I try to run a healthy - within reason- home-  with nutritious, balanced meals and no sweets except on shabbos+ special occasions.

 My 7 year old daughter is obsessed by food- she eats quickly, always wants what everyone else has and even still throws tantrums over minor food issues.  Whenever she goes to a kiddush, vort etc she can't get enough so I feel like never taking her to these place.

She is very overweight and I'm not  sure what to do.

To make it even harder-  in school there is always another reason for a food party, a siyum, siddur party, finished reading books etc. So they are forever getting nosh in school.  Also when she goes to friend’s houses, they get loads of junk.

I'm not sure how to handle this. I don't chas v'shalom want to give her a complex or make food an issue. However, she needs to learn how to relate better to food.

Dr. T,

You describe a very complex issue here, one that resonates with many a Mom. But, despite the fact that this situation is not uncommon, I urge you to consult with your pediatrician before you go any further. As a good rule of thumb, you always want to rule out the medical before you look at the psychological.

There is a real dilemma here. Attempting to control your child’s eating may result in an angry child with poor self esteem, but allowing free reign can be fostering a lifelong unhealthy pattern of eating. You are aware that complete control is impossible [consider the ubiquitous school ‘party’], yet you cringe at your daughter’s overeating and at other people’s assessment of your parenting. [Why doesn’t she do something?]

Unfortunately, there is no simple solution here. As in many things parenting, there is only a lengthy, often faulty, process of trial and error and plain-old doing the best that you can. But, considering the high stakes – poor health and poor self esteem- you certainly cannot afford to ignore this situation and just hope it will go away. So, let me give you some guidelines that may prove helpful in your effort to get this situation under some control.

Control the environment, not the child.

 By now I am sure that you realize that we cannot control our children – except when they are in our presence. Where there is opportunity, your child will seize it – in school, at a friend etc. The only thing you can realistically do is determine the food selection in your own home. If there is no nosh around, your daughter can’t grab any. Monitor your home; be reasonable in your efforts to suggest limits to others [Many teachers are not interested in being told how to manage their classrooms!], and avoid food free-for alls when possible. Your ability to manage your daughter’s environment – without her being aware or feeling singled out- can be one step in the right direction.

Talk health, not weight.

Health is positive, weight is negative. Even first graders know it’s bad to be ‘fat.’ You can only cause damage by ‘helpful’ comments like ‘you want to look nice in your uniform’ or ‘don’t eat that.’ Talk about health instead, as in ‘fish is good for your brain’ or ‘too much sugar gives you a head/stomach ache.’ The emphasis on health is not judgmental and hopefully will not be taken by the child as a criticism.

Stress exercise, not weight loss.

Find activities that your daughter likes and make sure she has the opportunity to do them. There are often activity groups – like dance, gymnastics, swimming, aerobics- that you daughter might enjoy. Encourage walking [when safe] rather than the inevitable carpool. Include physical activity in your family outings, rather than just doing passive activities like amusement parks. Help your daughter get in the habit of constant motion – a habit that can offset some of her excessive eating.

Model, model, model

You know the drill: our children do what they see. Work on modeling the development of healthy eating patterns and frequent exercise. Never underestimate your power to be the example that your children will emulate.

Think about why your daughter is so focused on food.

The causes of overeating in young children [and adults!] are poorly understood. While some children are simply bored and use food as‘filler’, others have an intense passion for eating which manifests itself almost immediately at birth. Though some are simply picking up the bad habits of their elders, others use food as the ultimate pacifier – to soothe hurts, rejection, anxiety, and pain. Understanding the roots of the behavior can help with the problem solving.

Unfortunately, whatever the cause, the consequences of overeating in today’s society are many. The overweight child is often rejected or even bullied by his peers. More significantly, the child often feels like a ‘loser’ and a failure because he knows the value society places on being thin.

However, the biggest price the child pays is in her knowledge that the adults in her world find it difficult, if not impossible, to accept her as she is. Every glance, every look, certainly every throwaway comment which many an adult makes without even thinking [‘More?’] confirms the  child’s feeling that she is ‘less-than.’  Little wonder then that the overweight child becomes the sad, anxious, or even sometimes theoff the derech’ teen.

Though there is no simple way to get your daughter to stop overeating, remember that this is not a black or white question. The issue is not whether to attempt to control or ignore, but rather how to engage in a process that allows for some success without demolishing your child. So, do the best that you can and strive for the art of the possible – a balance between the two conflicting forces.