This is a guest post from Kara Richards
I grew up fat. Because of this, my mom signed me up for exercise camp every Tuesday night and I had to log how much time I spent watching TV every week. I also learned things like how to make spaghetti squash.
I hit 100 pounds when I was in second grade. I hit 200 pounds in sixth grade. In middle school, I would only eat snacks for lunch because something in my pubescent brain told me that it would be healthier than eating a sandwich. My own personal hell was running the mile every semester for gym class, because I was always coming in past the deadline, embarrassingly out of breath. When I would get home from school, I would eat maybe three different snacks, and then eat a large dinner once the rest of my family got home. All throughout grade school (my earliest memory of doing this is first grade,) I’d sneak spoonfuls of peanut butter when no one was looking.
My mismanagement of food stemmed from my emotional connection to it, and the relationship I learned to have with it from my home environment. After coming to terms with the fact that I was bigger than everyone in my class (even the boys,) I knew that I shouldn’t be so dependent on food or enjoy it so much, so I became secretive about my eating habits. I would tell myself “no,” and think about how I shouldn’t be eating the way I did, which only made me want it more. I was embarrassed about how much I ate, so I’d do it in hiding – after everyone went to bed, or when I got home from school before anyone else arrived. I felt helpless, gross, and disappointed in myself.
When I went to college, the fall of my freshman year, I came down with strep throat twice in a short span of time, and I went to the doctor. When he recommended that I get tested for diabetes at the age of 18, I decided to make a change. I’ve since lost over 70 pounds, ran a 5k, and eat with my health in mind.
I reflect a lot on my childhood and how different it could have been if I didn’t develop such a poor relationship with food. That’s why I now want to help parents who worry about their kids’ weight to understand how they can help without doing harm. I know you care and you want to help, just like my parents did, but it’s hard. I’ve written some ways that you can help me as my previous self, in hopes that it will help you with your children.
1. When I’m upset about my body image, talk to me.
It’s really easy to sympathize with me when I’m feeling down about my physicality, or join me in my denial out of guilt. Embrace this and encourage me to speak openly about exactly what bothers me. Reassure that my feelings are valid and maybe share your own personal experiences. Help me come up with ways to make changes that I can stick to – maybe start by finding a dietitian who works with kids, or helping me set rational, achievable goals. When I was in middle school, I learned the SMART goal setting process, which I still use to this day. You can get involved in the goal setting, too!
2. Please don’t restrict me, because that just makes me want it more.
I’m aware that I have a problem. Maybe I’m in denial about it, or don’t fully understand the consequences of my choices when it comes to food. Restricting me, keeping my favorite foods hidden, locked up, or out of my reach but still having them in the house will make me miserable. Instead of restricting me, help me be aware of what I put in my body. Teach me how to read a nutrition label and build balanced meals. Keep the house stocked with nutritious foods. Help me expand my palate. Get me involved in the kitchen and making new recipes that I could make on my own.
3. Don’t comment on my eating habits or my body.
I’m aware that I’m bigger than the average kid, or my shirts don’t fit me that well sometimes. Making remarks about these things discourage me from talking to you about my feelings, so even if I wanted to make some changes, I couldn’t go to you.
4. Don’t put me (or the whole family) on a diet.
Don’t even mention the word “diet.” Diets fail, they’re difficult, miserable, and not fun. I don’t want to open my lunchbox at school and pull out celery sticks, an apple, a fat-free yogurt, and a salad when all my friends have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cheese curls, cookies, and fruit snacks. Help me find “fun” foods that are healthier, without taking away the fun in eating them. Setting up a family meal plan where everyone helps pick a meal they’d like to eat during the upcoming week would be super fun, and there are tons of recipes online to make family favorites even better: think about these veggie nuggets or sloppy joes.
5. Help me expand my interests
If I’m interested in shows or games that have to do with sports, dancing, or any sort of activity (when I was young it was always High School Musical or the Disney Channel Games,) help me get involved physically in pursuing those interests. Let’s do some Zumba in the living room to my favorite songs, or set up family game nights with obstacle courses or other games (potato sack races, capture the flag, or anything else you can think of – just please don’t play tag with me, I get discouraged when my siblings tag me right away and I can’t ever catch up when I’m “it.”)
6. Remember, it’s not your fault, but you can help me.
After growing up and reflecting on my childhood eating habits, there’s no one to blame. Using the tips above and doing some additional research, you can help me live healthily and learn about my own wellness, without pressuring me or making my situation worse
This topic hits me hard in the heart because I wish I knew at 10 years old what I know now as a young adult. Looking back, I was trapped in my own habits and I didn’t know how to get out, so I stayed there. If you think your child might be struggling, start thinking or acting on helping them.
Kara is a college student from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, that committed to herself in Spring 2017 to live better. You can find her most recent writings on sites like Mom Trusted Choice and BluntMoms, and follow her on Instagram.
What to help your daughter fall in love with health? Check out Maryann’s book: My Body’s Superpower: The Girls’ Guide to Growing Up Healthy During Puberty