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How should you discuss weight-related issues with your child? Our psychologist Sheryne Seah shares some insights.

Navigating puberty can be challenging — higher intake of rich foods and sedentary lifestyles are putting more children and teens at risk of obesity, and social expectations perpetuate the 'ideal' body as being thin.

The good news is, the younger your child is, the more influence you have in helping them build self-esteem and lasting healthy habits which can prevent the development of eating disorders and obesity.


A balanced approach to weight

The focus should not be on the weight itself but on behaviours and health. Using weight as the main motivation does not keep the weight down. Making lasting sustainable dietary changes and engaging in joyful movement can be more effective.

The goal should be to function well physically, emotionally and socially. However, you may still use weight to monitor your child's growth.


Check for warning signs of abnormal eating

Generally, there are three types of eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. Signs usually include a fixation with weight, food, calories, and dieting. Your child may skip meals, cut out essential food groups, binge eat, or appear uncomfortable eating around others. They may also voice significant distress about their weight and body.

Socially, they may seem withdrawn from friends and family or stop their usual activities. You may also notice more extreme mood swings, and sometimes, stomach discomfort and irregular menstruation. Seek professional advice if such behavioural and mood changes persist and start to affect their daily routines.


Mood and food explained

Some teens and children turn to food as a strategy to cope with emotions and personal difficulties. Ms Seah shares, "Food can be immediately rewarding on a physical and neurochemical level, and eating may allow them to temporarily avoid facing problems. But, they're likely to feel worse in the long term when problems continue to pile and they have not learnt other adaptive ways of coping."

Eating disorders can greatly affect your child's physical, mental and social well-being. For example, anorexia nervosa can lead to compromised growth, infertility, as well as mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. Around one in 20 patients (about 5%) die—the highest of any psychiatric condition–which is usually from the result of heart and other organ failure but may also be due to suicide. Other eating disorders like binge eating can lead to obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes.


How to set up a healthy home environment

Make being healthy easier

Make nutritious options available at home and decrease screen time so that there are more opportunities for physical movement.

Walk the talk

Don't just preach but implement actual changes and work towards them as a family. Have meals together where you can model healthy eating patterns and connect with your kids.

Don't restrict foods

Sneak-eating is often a result of over restriction as 'forbidden foods' have higher desirability. Your teens can still get them outside of the house so it is better to decrease access rather than restricting them. Instead, provide a variety of foods including desserts and snacks, and avoid buying foods low in nutrition.

Promote a positive body image

Having a positive relationship with their bodies can encourage your adolescent to nurture themselves through healthy eating, positive self-talk and exercise. Teens with high body dissatisfaction typically develop unhealthy weight control habits which are harmful. Compliment them on their strengths, such as hobbies, character traits or skills, that go beyond physical appearances.

No weight talk

Don't allow any weight-related teasing and avoid criticising yourself or other people's body size or weight in front of your children. While this may stem from good intentions to prevent obesity, it may backfire and increase the risk of eating disorders.


Find the right words!

Do not say these

Say these instead

"You are getting fat. All you do is sit around and eat! Don't you want to do anything about it?

"Looks like you've been cooped up at home. Let's go out more often and see if you feel better after that. Any ideas for fun activities?"

"If you lose weight, you will look better and not be bullied by your friends."

"You might feel more energised, be able to concentrate better in school, and enjoy activities with your friends better if we eat well and do more activities as a family."

"You look so pretty after losing weight!"

"Good work on taking care of your health and treating your body well!"


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