Study of Hands

Fewer Fingers Wagging, More Hands Helping

Whether or not it’s by intention, when and if parents try to talk with their children about body weight, it comes across as finger wagging. In fact, research published earlier this year tells us many youth never want their parents to talk about their weight – especially not their fathers. Parents might want to offer helping hands for their children, but all too often, children perceive only the wagging fingers.

For deeper perspective, new research published this week in Pediatrics is invaluable. Rebecca Puhl, Leah Lessard, Gary Foster, and Michelle Cardel conducted online research with a sample of 3,968 youth ages 10-17 and parents of youth in that age.

No Magic Words

Though the research dives into a great deal of detail, the bottom line is quite simple. There are no magic words. These researchers found a great diversity in preferences for how parents might approach this subject and the words they should use. Different youths have different needs and feelings about the words their parents might use. And the feelings those words evoke are quite strong.

Thus, it’s best to listen first and respect a young person’s thoughts and feelings about this subject.

Be Prepared

Jacqlyn Yourell is a doctoral candidate at the University of Florida studying parent-child communications about obesity. She tells us:

“Weight-talk is almost inescapable in our current climate, so being prepared for these conversations is crucial. What’s more, these conversations occur in a broader context of parent-child relationships, so for some parents and children (teens especially) these conversations may present with more challenges if their relationship is already rocky.”

Parents Need Helping Hands, Too

As a director of the Center for Pediatric Obesity Medicine at the University of Minnesota, Claudia Fox sees the importance of this research. She tells us:

“Most parents are likely unaware that the words they use to describe their children may be offensive. One of the roles of the clinician is to model appropriate use of language. The words should be non-stigmatizing, and non-judgmental.

“Many patients and families are apprehensive about seeking weight management care because of fear of judgment and blame. Using language that patients prefer can allow for a more productive clinic visit.”

Allen Browne, a pediatrician, surgeon, and advocate for kids and families coping with obesity, reminds us that parents need education and empowerment. He says that Puhl et al offer important insights, but for parents, “it’s way more complicated than just telling them the better words to use.”

Framing the Subject

Faith Anne Newsome is a doctoral student at the University of Florida, recognized as an expert on the lived experience of obesity in youth. Questions on how to talk about this with young persons are among the most frequent ones she hears. She tells us that how we frame the subject is important:

“Thinking deeply about the words we use is important to ensure we’re talking about obesity for what it is, a disease that requires treatment, not something that children or teens should be made to feel bad about.”

In sum, the conversation about obesity has become twisted up in issues of blame, shame, and personal responsibility. Irresponsibility is not the root cause of obesity, any more than it is the root cause of childhood leukemia. The only question is how parents can best respond with love and care for their children – and how well our health systems support them in doing that.

Click here for the new study in Pediatrics and here for the commentary that accompanies it. For further perspective, click here and here.

Study of Hands, painting by Edgar Degas / WikiArt

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November 23, 2022

One Response to “Fewer Fingers Wagging, More Hands Helping”

  1. November 23, 2022 at 11:19 am, Allen Browne said:

    Parents, providers, payers, policy makers, and the public need to use 4 words – “It’s not your fault!” – and believe them.