52: Approaching Health Conversations with Kids: Expert Tips from Pediatrician Dr. Jane Roberts

Feb 12, 2024

There’s no denying that obesity among children is on the rise. But we also know what a sensitive subject weight can be–and one that many parents are reluctant to broach. Do you mention their tightening waistband and risk hurting their feelings? Or do you choose to stay quiet and risk causing even more damage in the long run by not addressing the issue?

As parents, it’s difficult to know how we can support children who are struggling with their relationship with food and their bodies, especially when they have higher BMI. I recently had the privilege of speaking with Dr. Jane Roberts MD, a pediatrician in Canada who navigates this terrain both in her practice and at home with her own children.

In this episode, we dig into the best ways to approach this topic with your children, and the practical steps you can take to introduce healthier eating habits and a more active lifestyle.

How to Broach the Topic of Healthy Lifestyles

When it comes to bringing this issue up with children, it’s important to set the right tone from the start. When Dr. Roberts has her initial conversations with parents, she often begins by reassuring parents that weight isn't the sole indicator of health.

Instead, she directs their focus towards pediatric growth charts, emphasizing the significance of growth trajectory, rather than just a number on the scale. By reframing the conversation, she helps parents understand that healthy development is multifaceted and not only defined by weight.

Dr. Roberts also delves into the genetics of obesity, helping families understand that their genetic predispositions play a significant role in their children's health. By acknowledging this reality, parents can approach their child's well-being with a more holistic understanding, free from the guilt and pressure often associated with weight-centric conversations.

Top 3 Strategies for Supporting Children at Home

1. Shifting the Focus Away from Weight: Dr. Roberts advocates for removing weight-centric language and eliminating the use of scales at home. Instead, she encourages parents to view food as fuel and to avoid restrictive diets. By promoting a balanced approach to eating, children learn to listen to their bodies and develop healthier relationships with food.

2. Look at Food as Fuel: Restricting and demonizing certain foods is traumatizing as a kid. Instead of constantly living that stress, it’s important to celebrate food variety, allow all foods in moderation, and teach their children about portion control and balance. 

Instead of thinning you need to do a low carb diet or cut out certain foods, focus on ensuring that every time your child sits down to eat, they have fuel in front of them. if your kids never have a sugary thing or something that we would consider a “treat”, they are going to overeat their faces off when they go to their friend's house. And that's not appropriate, either.

3. Embrace Food Variety: Exposing children to a wide range of foods is also important. Pairing treats with nutritious options can help children understand the concept of balance and moderation. 

By incorporating protein-rich foods into meals and snacks, parents can promote satiety and support healthy growth and development. For example, you might have chips on one side and a Greek yogurt dip or cottage cheese on the other.

Navigating Online Resources

Looking at online resources to support with this issue can feel overwhelming, especially when it comes to health and wellness information. And if we don't have the general skills to weed out the crazy messages you can hear in society, we as a population are going to be in trouble.

It’s key to approach online content with a critical eye, focusing on sources that align with evidence-based practices and promote realistic expectations. Be careful if someone is promising you something that sounds over and above what you think is possible, because it’s probably not!

Social media has amazing benefits, but it can also be traumatizing. So as parents we have to try to be present when our kids are using it at a young age, not just in terms of putting limits on it, but in terms of our own awareness of how it’s being used.

By empowering children to discern credible information from wildly false claims, we can help mitigate the potential harm of misleading messages.

The Role of Family Modeling

Family dynamics can have a huge effect on children's attitudes and behaviors towards food and body image. Parents do need to lead by example, modeling balanced eating habits and positive attitudes towards physical activity. By creating a supportive home environment that prioritizes health and well-being, parents can instill lifelong habits that promote positive self-image and overall wellness.

Supporting children who are struggling in this realm is not easy. But by incorporating some of Dr. Roberts' insights and simple steps into our parenting practices, we can create nurturing environments where children feel supported, valued, and empowered to embrace their unique selves.