Are You Setting Up the Healthy Habits Your Child Needs to Thrive?

Take The Quiz


How to Talk about Weight and Size with Your Child

Learn about weight talk with children and how to talk about weight without causing stigma or harm to their self-esteem.

In an age where there is a lot of attention on childhood obesity, many parents want to broach the topic of their child’s weight with sensitivity and care. The topic of a child’s size is sensitive, and talking about it, even with the best of intentions, can leave lifelong emotional scars, affecting mental wellbeing and physical health.

And yet, many parents want to engage in weight talk with their children, thinking it will somehow motivate them to change or take up healthier habits. But talking about weight or your child’s size is not the path to change. It can be the road to poor self-esteem, mental health concerns, and a disturbed body image.

No bueno!

As a pediatric dietitian, I’ve worked with many families in my over 33-year career who struggle with how to talk about weight and size with their child.

My number one piece of advice: You really shouldn’t engage in weight talk with your child.

It doesn’t benefit a child to discuss their weight. And although it may alleviate your stress or help you feel like you’re being proactive, at the end of the day, it won’t help your child.

When we discuss topics like “too much weight,” “obesity,” or body sizes, this attention may make children feel badly about who they are, and perhaps undermine their feelings of worthiness.

In this article, I’m reviewing:

  • Why body size may be a concern
  • Why size and weight do not equal health
  • Why weight talk is harmful to children
  • What you can talk about, and focus on, instead
Boy running in a field with a toy.

Why Body Size May Be a Concern

Many parents come to me with concerns about their child’s body size. They may observe changes in body shape or notice their child is experiencing weight gain.

Children’s bodies change quite a bit during childhood. You can observe this easily by looking at your child’s growth chart when you visit your child’s pediatrician.

Using your child’s growth chart, especially the weight curve, and the body mass index (BMI), which assesses the proportionality of your child’s weight to their height, may classify your child’s size into the following categories: “normal weight,” “overweight,” “obesity,” “severe obesity” and “underweight.”

I advise you take both tools with a grain of salt, especially the BMI. While the growth chart is a useful tracking tool for overall growth and development over time, there are several limitations to using the BMI in assessing an individual’s body size.  

Listen to this episode with Dr. Kris Madsen on The Nourished Child podcast. She gives a great critique of the BMI and how it lacks usefulness (and may promote harm) when used to asses individual children.

Why Size Does Not Equal Health

A child’s weight or body size does not determine their physical health. Let me repeat: Healthy doesn’t have a size.

But diet culture will have you believe that your child’s health is a reflection of their appearance. Our society will even go so far as to question your food parenting skills if your child’s body size doesn’t fit the “norm.” Tough standards!

Every child has their own unique genetic traits, food preferences, temperament, desires, and yes, overall health.

What determines your child’s physical health is their body’s functionality, not their form.

Can they do all the things they want to do? Are the parameters of good health like blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar in good standing? Are they free of health concerns?

These are the markers of health, not your child’s size, weight or shape.

Healthy doesn't have a size; Kids Thrive at Every Size book

Weight Talk and Why It Causes Harm

Talking about weight with your child can be stigmatizing…even if you try really hard not to make it so.

Critiques from family members about body weight in young people can lead to body dissatisfaction, negative feelings, and harm a child’s self-esteem. Children seem to have a sense when they aren’t accepted, their bodies are a problem, or they aren’t good enough.

Talking about extra weight or size coupled with the outside world serving up popular (unattainable) standards of what health looks like can add up to weight stigma.

Is It Okay to Talk about Weight with My Child?

No, I don’t think it’s okay.

After decades of work in pediatric nutrition and raising four of my own kids, I can tell you, I don’t believe there’s an upside to having this discussion. Even if you try to soften the topic, or cage it in “being healthier,” kids seem to know you’re talking about their bodies as a problem that needs to be fixed.

Weight talk may be stigmatizing for children.

Health, Self-Care and Lifestyle Can Be Positive Discussions

So, if you can’t talk about weight with your child or their body size, what can you talk about?

Just about anything! As long as it doesn’t convey that your child’s body or size is a problem.

For instance, you can talk about lifestyle behaviors that are supportive and positive, like getting enough sleep, participating in physical activities that are fun, or enjoying a favorite family meal.  

Children, especially those with large or small bodies need to know they are accepted and loved above all. This will keep their positive self-image growing.

How to Support Your Child’s Health and Emotional Wellbeing

I believe all bodies are good bodies! And just because your child may be large (or small), doesn’t mean they aren’t, or can’t be, healthy and happy. That’s the goal!

But, today, your child won’t grow up healthy and happy without your help.

If you want to avoid weight talk, cultivate healthy habits, and promote positive body image, here are a few positive changes to get started on:

Physical Activity

Daily movement is a powerful tool. It helps your child stay physically healthy and also supports their mental wellbeing. When your child moves and has fun, the positive effects are doubled.

Social Media

Social media can be a battlefield of bias (negative beliefs about children with large or small bodies), stigma (obvious actions against children, like cyberbullying), and mental programming that may undermine your child’s sense of worthiness.

If your child is on social media, be there with them so you can see what they see (and limit or remove any harmful input).

Offer a Variety of Foods

We place a lot of importance on diet, especially healthy eating, when kids have excess weight. Instead of food restriction, I think a variety of foods is the way to go.

When kids are able to eat and like all kinds of foods, they’re less likely to build shame around them or internalize shameful feelings about themselves. The goal is to encourage children to enjoy eating, no matter their size, and promote healthy behaviors with food.

Family Meals

This is where the real connection and support happens and where you can share positive comments, connect, and actively fight against diet culture and weight stigma.

Keep that family meal time a haven of love and support for your child!

Role Model: Avoid Negative Talk of Other People’s Bodies (and Your Own Body)

As an adult, you know that bodies come in all shapes, sizes, and body weights. And that is a beautiful thing! But our children today – more than ever before – need to see and hear us talk positively of all bodies, especially are own.

If your child hears negative comments about other people’s bodies or hears you body bash yourself, they may internalize these comments and think the same of themselves.

Let’s Avoid Weight Talk and Focus on Positive Lifestyle Habits

I encourage you to spend your time and energy on building healthful habits that support both your child’s physical health and emotional wellbeing. That’s time well-spent cultivating a healthy and happy child!

Are you cultivating the habits that will help your child thrive? Take the Healthy Habits Quiz and find out!

Want professional help from a registered dietitian? Check out my Private Practice offerings!

HOW TO TALK TO KIDS ABOUT WEIGHT (Without Making Them Feel Bad)
Take my healthy habits quiz and find out if you're raising a child who can thrive at every size!

Last Post

How to Optimize Food When Your Child Carries Extra Weight

Next Post

Help! My Child is Larger in Size but Eats Healthy

My child is overweight but eats healthy