Creative Lip-Zipping

So, we have established that parents need to get a handle on their own addictions and other deficiencies, and be worthy role models. Behavior-wise, each new day presents a thousand opportunities to set a good example or… not.

And then, there is verbal communication, where examples are also set. What should parents say to overweight children? Registered dietitian and nutritionist Carrie Dennett would prefer it if they didn’t say much of anything, pro or con. This is based on research and experience. Criticism, obviously, is not recommended. Teasing is definitely off the table. But even helpful advice can be counterproductive and, believe it or not, so can compliments.

Your Childhood Obesity News writer will break precedent here, and relate a personal anecdote germane to the subject. As a young girl, I hated the way my forehead hairline came to a point. One day Grandma got all profuse about how lucky I was to have a “widow’s peak” and I loathed it 10 times more. At 12, I discovered tweezers, and yanked out those “peak” hairs to make a straight hairline.

A trivial and minor incident

The takeaway of that story is, with a child or a teen, you never know how a compliment will land. For a different child, a relative’s offhand remark — negative or positive — might be the impetus that leads her to discover anorexia. As Dennett says,

Mentioning a child’s weight or size, or commenting that the child should eat differently to control his or her weight — even if the child is seriously obese — can increase the risk of binge-eating and unhealthy weight-control methods such as meal skipping, fasting, purging or the use of diet pills or laxatives.

A reliable rule is, steer clear of remarks about looks. Unless asked. And even then, use caution. There are courses for adults, on how to communicate with kids in ways the least likely to be incendiary, and they are worth looking into. A whole sub-genre of therapeutic advice exists to help grownups talk to youth about obesity-related topics.

Good judgment is called for

Okay, on dance recital day, you want to tell your daughter she’s a knockout. Nobody suggests a total ban on spontaneous compliments. It’s really great when a parent makes the effort to discern the areas in which a child is interested in a parent’s opinion or gives a fig about any grownup’s input.

A parent who takes the trouble to discern the most appropriate kind of compliment, and the most opportune time to deliver it, and so on, is a parent to be treasured and emulated. Sure, this stuff is way complicated. Which is, again, why parenting classes were invented.

The best part is, with any luck and a little imagination, a parent can find plenty of other reasons to give a kid a thumbs-up or a round of applause, without ever venturing into the realm of looks. It may even help them understand that to be admired for one’s appearance is not the highest achievable value in human life, which is an excellent thing to know.

Here is another quotation from Dennett, with emphasis added:

A study published in the June issue of Eating and Weight Disorders found that women whose parents commented on their weight when they were growing up were more likely to be dissatisfied with their current weight, even if they were not overweight.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “What to say (or not to say) to your overweight child,”, 09/13/16
Photo credit: MinivanNinja on Visualhunt/CC BY-ND

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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