QUESTION: As my 8 year-old son was getting dressed for school the other day, he told me he had “jiggly bits” – referring to his stomach. At the time, I didn’t know what to say so I brushed it off. But the truth is, I know my son is heavier than he should be at his age: partly because he enjoys processed sugary food, partly because he is not as active as his older brother and would prefer to spend time on his iPad, and partly because I don’t force or encourage him to be any different. But I worry about his health as he is getting older, and now that he has made this comment, how do I introduce the idea of a healthier lifestyle?
At some point, our children will think about their weight. This can be a tricky topic to talk about but there are ways you can talk about it without negatively impacting on your son’s self image or self esteem.
Keep it low key. Don’t start with a “serious” talk. You don’t want to make your son feel it is a big deal at this stage. Find opportunities to talk about health and why it is important to eat healthily and exercise.
Be curious. When your son mentions anything about his weight, you could ask a question. For example, “What makes you say that?” “Should we do anything about those jiggly bits?” You can then open further conversation from there.
Make health a family affair. Involve your son in making healthy choices by asking “What could we all do to be a bit healthier with food and physical activities?” If he offers a choice, even something small, acknowledge this and make further suggestions. Also provide him with reasons why it is important to eat fewer sugary foods and more healthy snacks, or why it is important to spend more time outside and less time on the iPad. Still allow him time on the iPad so he doesn’t feel like he is being punished in any way. Come up with a family schedule together.
Acknowledge healthy choices. Celebrate the small victories when healthy choices are made. For example, “I’m really happy that we’re walking together today.” Or “It’s great that you chose yoghurt first as a snack.” Also involve your son in what goes into his lunchbox – he can still have one of his usual choices as long as there are other healthy options there too.
Introduce physical activities. Encourage your son to go for walks with you. If this seems boring for him, can he ride his scooter or bike if he has one? Do you have a dog to walk together? You could make the walks more interesting by going to areas with interesting scenery such as the lovely beaches in Newcastle and surrounds, the waterside at Warners Bay or the local park. If your son is not already playing a sport, think about doing this. You can also take advantage of the $100 Active School Kids Voucher available from Service NSW. Visit www.service.nsw.gov.au.
Don’t become discouraged. Your son may still prefer junk food – this is pretty normal for a kid. You don’t need to say anything about the “bad” choice but you could say “Why don’t I cut up an apple first and if you are still hungry, you could have the LCM bar afterwards.”
Be mindful of your language. Be careful that you don’t use the words like “fat” or “skinny” – focus on the word “healthy” instead. Also, be aware of how you speak about your own body in front of your children.
It may take some time and patience and all the advice above may not be successful at first. Habits do take time to change but if you do it together, your family health will improve. Be careful not to compare your younger son with his older brother. They may never be the same physically but a healthier change is good for the whole family.