Five Comments Parents Should Never Make About a Child's Weight
While more kids are overweight today than ever before, overemphasizing weight issues can have an unintended downside: Research suggests that it may increase the likelihood that children will turn to dangerous dieting behaviors in an effort to trim down. U.S. News recently sat down with five teens who battled anorexia and were treated at the Emily Program, a private eating disorders facility in Minneapolis-St. Paul, to find out what sent their weight plunging. Here are some comments they wish they'd never heard.
1. You're big boned compared to your sister. Having her two best friends dub her "chubby cheeks" in sixth grade was bad enough, but Leah Schumacher also had to endure her sister calling her "fat" at home. "I had a bigger build than her, but I wasn't overweight," recalls the 18-year-old from St. Paul. Although there's no way to protect children from every hurtful comment, parents can certainly avoid remarking on a child's weightand insist that siblings do too. Even offhand comments can be damaging. "I'd overhear my mom saying to her friends, 'Katie's the bigger one,'" recalls Katie Million, a 19-year-old from Lino Lakes, Minn., whose weight fell below 95 pounds during her sophomore year of high school.
2. Maybe this new diet will help. "I'm always hearing about how bad food is; they showed Super Size Me [a documentary about the dangers of fast food] in school," says Schumacher. "I would have liked to have learned from my parents or teachers about the positives of food, like why I need some fat to build cells and what fruits and vegetables do for my body." Though none of their parents encouraged dieting, the Emily Program alums have seen it firsthand with their other friends. Million recently had a roommate whose mother sent her diet products in the mail and then complained on visits that her daughter hadn't lost enough weight. "After going through what I went through," she says, "I couldn't stick around for those conversations."
3. I hated my body, too, when I was your age. With the best of intentions, Natalie Durbin shared the insecurities she'd had as a teen with her daughter Hannah, now 16, when Hannah was going through puberty. "I told her that I'd always been really thin but then started hating my body when I developed curves. I wanted to be really open about it in case she was feeling the same way," Durbin explains. Hannah, though, took it as a cue for how she should feel about her own developing bodyespecially since her mother was still dealing with a poor self-image. "She would tell me not to focus on my body image, but then she'd talk about how she hated her body all the time," says Hannah. "Now I think it's best if my mom never talks about these things with me."
4. You're such a talented athlete; let's crank it up a notch. When Linda* recognized running talent in her daughter Maria, she encouraged her to join the high school track team and began to run with her to help her train for competitions. "I praised her, thinking I was building up her self-esteem, but never realized she hated [running] and was only doing it for me," the mother says. When Maria began adding on extra miles and dangerously shedding weight, her mother was shocked to discover the depth of her daughter's unhappiness. Exercising excessively and cutting calories to the point of becoming anorexic, Maria says, was her way of getting her mother's attention. She didn't know how else to convey how much she hated the pressure of the track meets. Of course, physical activity is vital for good health, and some kids have a natural drive to excel in sports. But Linda now believes that if parents are the ones doing the pushing, they need to stop and reassess.
5. You look great! Have you lost weight? Nearly all the teens said they got praise from family and friends when they began restricting their food intake and dropping pounds. The compliments made them feel as if they were earning the equivalent of an A for every pound they lost. "You can put up with how painfully cold you are all the time," says 18-year-old Edie Kuss, "how your hands are always purple and you're so weak you can't stand up. What you crave is the praise, and that's what you remember even when it stops because you've gotten too thin."
*Last name withheld for privacy.