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How to Tell Parents That Their Kid Is Overweight or Obese?

October 10, 2011 by NCSF 0 comments

Communication skills may dictate the fate of a relationship. This is true at several levels in our social environment, and with an increased reliance on technology-based communication, these skills are becoming even more important. Most people can quickly recall a verbal disagreement that led to a social “situation” or an email that was misinterpreted due to a lack of verbal tone. Word selection and verbal tact become even more relevant in association with certain topics. And sometimes not just the verbal communication, but also the timing and word selection, may generate quick conflict between the communicators. Taboo topics exist in all relationships and at all levels. “Do these jeans make me look fat?” has been on the satire end of many a sitcom and most married people know it is not hard to push the buttons of a significant other. When it comes to weight related issues, all verbal communication gets exponentially risky, to the point that it may jeopardize a relationship. And this is not just between couples or friends. Try telling a mother that her child is obese; you’ll create defensiveness in response to perceived offensiveness. For her, it may instill questions of her parenting skills as much as it suggests a flaw in her most precious possession. For this simple reason, health care professionals and those people who work with children have to be extremely careful with their language and time selection to refer to the child’s weaknesses if they do not want to generate a negative reaction with the parents.

Several studies have shown that the wording utilized when communicating to overweight or obese individuals is crucial, especially overweight women. It has been documented that the words fat, obese, and overweight clearly made them feel stigmatized. In a recent study, to be published in the October issue of Pediatrics, the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University has evaluated American parents' perceptions of common terms used to describe excess weight in children and demonstrated that parents prefer doctors use the terms "weight" and "unhealthy weight" rather than "fat," "obese," and "extremely obese." Parents were asked their opinion about 10 common terms used to describe excess body weight in children, specifically, if they considered these terms desirable, stigmatizing, blaming or motivational for weight loss. Among the analyzed terms were:

Term selections:Desired Terms:
  • "extremely obese"
  • "high BMI"
  • "weight problem"
  • "unhealthy weight"
  • "weight"
  • "heavy"
  • "obese"
  • "overweight"
  • "chubby"
  • “fat"
  • "weight"
  • "unhealthy weight"
  • "weight problem"

The terms "fat," "obese," and "extremely obese" were consistently rated as the most undesirable, stigmatizing, blaming, and least motivating terms of the 10 examined in the study.

Although it may seem to be a small detail with no great impact in the final obesity epidemic outcome, parents expressed that if a pediatrician or health professional would utilize any of the non-desired words, they would not come back for another appointment (24%) or they would find a new professional (35%). This adds some challenge to the already difficult task of increasing the awareness among the population most in need of weight management. The lead author, Rebecca Puhl, director of research at the Yale Rudd Center said that, “using weight-based terminology that patients find desirable and motivating, and avoiding language that parents perceive to be stigmatizing and blaming, is an important first step in facilitating positive, productive discussions about health among families."

As in any relationship, the more fluid and comfortable communication between both parties the better the mutual effort and resultant outcomes. This can be the case of a health care professional or a personal trainer who is trying to develop a relationship with the young client to set weight management goals or describing the outcomes of body composition measurements. Many people are completely unaware that they are obese; considering it’s nearly 40% of the population. The term is often considered more vanity than health related. Many people who feel they could stand to lose a few pounds are the same people who are categorically obese and at high risk for premature death.

A first step to getting people motivated is being positive. Regardless of the definitions and accuracy of a word, making clients and parents comfortable with the language used is paramount. Tact in communication will instill confidence and allow a better chance to attain success. In addition, although women seem to be most sensitive to language, the word selection preference should also be carefully considered when communicating with children and adult males as well. Although neither may express their discomfort, children may be susceptible to the terms and some males are more sensitive to terms than others. The reality is no one wants to be called obese; a scientifically defined term with social implications. Although challenging, developing a healthy communication with clients regardless of age can dictate the degree of success in weight management interventions.


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