Parents won't discuss weight and obesity with their children

Anissa Ford's picture

It's harder for parents to discuss weight with their children than it is to discuss premarital sex. Many parents feel that talk is their doctors' responsibility.

A survey done as part of fit, a partnership between WebMD and Sanford Health, found that one in 20 parents of teens report "struggling with the subjects of alcohol, drugs and smoking. One in 10 parents don't feel comfortable talking about sex with their teenagers, but nearly 25 percent of parents are hesitant to talk about their teens about being overweight.

Research suggests that parents are not talking to their kids about healthy eating habits and healthy weight simply because they do not have the right information. But reality may be a lot simpler than that. Parents are universally regarded by their children as people who love them unconditionally. Parents with children who are overweight find themselves in a difficult conundrum because kids generally learn eating habits from their families.

Moreover, younger children are more apt to translate conversation on weight gain and weight loss as a parent's quest for the child to be "skinny" like models and television actors. Children unable to process or relate ideal weight with good health potentially interpret weight loss conversations initiated by parents as a parent displeased and disappointed with the child's personal appearance.

FitWebMD research found that half of the clinicians believe parents need information on how to manage conversations on healthy eating, dieting and weight loss effectively. "Initiating these discussions starts with knowing the basics, like the fact that behavioral health and proper sleep play a critical role in obesity risk, in addition to proper nutrition and activity," says Michael Bergeron, Ph.D. "Equally important is providing the resources that kids can use on their own, that enable them to learn and interact in ways that they find engaging."

Drug Use and Obesity rank as top two U.S. childhood health concerns

Even though childhood obesity sits at the top of the list of U.S. childhood health concerns, Fit research found that many parents of kids between the ages of 8 and 17 may be avoiding conversations on weight gain and factors leading to obesity altogether.

More than one in five parents surveyed said they have never brought up the subject of maintaining a healthy weight to their kids, despite more than one-third saying being overweight poses an immediate threat to their kids. According to the American Heart Association, about one in three American kids and teens are overweight or obese.

Maintaining a healthy weight has become a cultural – and now clearly a conversational – lightning rod," said Hansa Bhargava, M.D., Medical Director, fit . "The irony is that, in a culture almost obsessed with finding solutions to surging childhood obesity rates, something as simple as talking to your kids about healthy habits and, thus, healthy weight, poses perhaps the greatest challenge to parents."

Healthcare professionals are clear on their viewpoint: 90 percent believe that maintaining a healthy weight is the most important health topic that parents should discuss with their children, over safe sex, cigarette smoking, drug use, and excessive alcohol consumption.

Even so, when healthcare providers are confronted with conversations with pediatric patients about weight, like parents, doctors face their own barriers. According to the research, more than half say the potential emotional reaction from pediatric patients prevents them from initiating the conversation about healthy weight. Half of the doctors surveyed also reported concerns about the emotional fallout from family members.

"Weight has become such an emotionally charged and pervasive subject, especially in a culture that is highly image-driven," says Susan Bartell, Psy.D., nationally recognized obesity expert. "Broaching this subject can be extremely intimidating for parents, especially given that parents themselves may be struggling with weight."

Of the healthcare providers who are talking to their pediatric patients about the importance of maintaining a healthy weight, only 47 percent have the conversation with patients whose weight is within normal range, versus 93 percent who have the conversation with patients whose weight is above the normal range.

Prevention is key in this epidemic and parents seem to be leaving the responsibility for initiating the discussion with pediatricians. But pediatricians are not discussing weight either, until weight becomes a problem. (Of course in rural areas, this is a huger problem because many children are going without pediatricians because pediatric doctors flock to urban cities for jobs). One in five parents surveyed say they believe the doctor should be the most accountable person having the overweight and obesity discussion with childhood patients.

Data for the FitWebMD survey was collected from multiple sources: a national survey of 1,299 parents of children ages 8-17 and a national survey of 1,078 kids between the ages of 8-17 conducted by Kelton Research; and a survey of 624 healthcare providers including pediatricians, nurse practitioners and physician assistants conducted via Medscape, the leading source of information for healthcare professionals.


Submitted by Elizabeth (not verified) on
Parents should lead by example. If they maintain a healthy diet and exercise regimen, their kids are more likely to do so.

Submitted by Landon (not verified) on
Parents are solely responsible for this, there is no way that a doctor should be held accountable to telling the kids that they need to change their lifestyle. Parents are the ones with a MUCH stronger connection to the children, and it will be something the family can do together rather than child/doctor duo. This all coming from a used-to-be-fat kid whose parents helped him obtain a healthy weight.

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