If your child is overweight, he or she may feel stigmatized in their very own home. Even in the best of families, overweight kids often feel like they’re a disappointment, a failure who is dragging the family down. Mix in a skinny sibling who seems to be able to eat anything they want and not gain a pound – well, what can we say? Life is tough, and genes aren’t always fair.
If your teens form a united front, then you know they have each other’s back every time someone asks, are you really going to eat that? But if sibling rivalry has the upper hand, you might witness frequent teasing and torment on the subject of weight. And given all the weight stigma in the outside world, the last thing an overweight kid needs is emotional torment within the home, a place that should always be a safe haven.
For bullying doesn’t just happen on the schoolbus, during recess, or in a deserted parking lot. Bullying within the family can have a powerful effect on your overweight teen’s developing sense of self, and it has been underestimated by the medical and mental health fields.
Janet Jackson, one of the most beautiful women in the world, discusses this very issue in her book True You. She mentions that as close as her relationship was to her brothers in general and Michael in particular, that he would constantly tease her about her weight, especially how well endowed she was in the bottom. One of his nicknames for her was “Dunk,” which Janet thinks might have been short for Donkey. Janet knew that Michael was teasing her more or less in good humor, not to bully her, but she didn’t like any of the many nicknames he called her, most of which touched on her backside. The message Janet received was that somehow she didn’t match up to to the ideal way her family would like her to look. This beautiful young woman was disappointing; she didn’t “measure up”.
Make Your Home a Safe Haven
Understanding that one is worthy of being loved whether one loses weight or not is key to taking the initial steps to lose weight. Why? Aside from the obvious reason that high self-esteem helps motivate and support longterm behavior change, feeling loved for who they are inside can help free your teen from being “stuck” in the negative identity our society often assigns “fat people.” It’s not pretty to look at the negative attributes we project on the overweight: Fat equals lazy, out-of-control, slovenly, messy, stupid, unattractive, unloved, and unpopular. There are also positive stereotypes linked with “fatness” — a love for life, a big heart, humility, humor, sexiness, and generosity. If your child or teen has been overweight for many years, he or she has probably absorbed their own unique mix of these traits into their developing self-image and sense of “what is possible for me in the world.” Unfortunately, since weight is so tied to identity and how we “see” other people, teens get to the point where being overweight feels ingrained, an inextricable part of who they are. Not only can this lead to depression and hopelessness when they try to change, but if they do succeed in losing weight, it can often be somewhat traumatic. Who am I if I’m not the biggest person in the room? Am I still the same “me” if I lose 50, 75, or 100 pounds?
Weight loss, already a huge challenge, becomes even more difficult when your teen identifies with and feels “trapped” in the body they have now. And this is why family love and respect for who they are as a whole person — not just their body and how they look — can be such a gift to them. Yes, bodies are important. Health is important. And there’s no sense in arguing with a teen that how they look isn’t important: it just is and you can’t change that. You can, however, make sure that at least within the safe haven of the family, your teen feels loved on a deeper level. This will give them a great base of self-esteem and security so that if and when they do decide to lose weight, their chances of succeeding longterm are much higher.
Making home a safe haven also requires that you be sensitive to a thinner sibling excluding your overweight teen. There is no rule that siblings must always get along, but watch out for thin siblings feeling embarrassed by their overweight brother or sister in public, especially around their friends. Your overweight teen’s low self-esteem can put up little resistance when peers and people outside the home treat them poorly.
Communication is key.
Watch out for your overweight teen’s denial, acting like their weight doesn’t bother them as they reach into a bag of potato chips. Chances are that your teen is silently suffering when they hear their thinner sibling plan their Friday night, discuss their first date, or show off a new bathing suit that looks more like a rubber band. These moments are part of the challenges of having a thin sibling. Your role as a parent is not to deny a thin sibling these moments but to be sensitive to what your overweight teen might be feeling. You need to reach out to them with great sensitivity and honesty, which can only come from your empathy for what your teen might be feeling. Remind them that now isn’t forever, that they can lose the weight — or not — if they want to. Bodies change, bodies grow bigger and smaller, bodies age — but who they are inside is the most important part. Remind them of all the talents, skills, and lovable qualities that they have aside from a number on the scale.
Shift the Focus from Weight Loss to Health
And speaking of the scale, if your teen wants to lose weight it’s helpful to shift the focus from weight loss to health. This helps teens to not place unrealistic expectations on themselves or experiment with destructive “solutions” to their weight problem. For teens are subject to fantasy. Their brains do not fully appreciate the complex reality of decisions or situations. This is why they are such fearless risk takers, and why they can believe so readily in Hollywood endings. Maybe the parent who abandoned them years ago really will return and say “I love you”! Maybe if they wear the right dress the cutie in 4th period math class will spontaneously confess a mutual crush and ask them to prom! Or maybe if they take that diet pill, “starve” themselves, or exclusively eat grapefruit, they will “shed ten pounds a week!” just like the infomercial on late-night TV promises.
1. Teasing matters: parents, relatives, or siblings who tease about weight can damage the self-esteem of your overweight teen. As a parent, you need to intervene and make your home a weight-stigma free zone.
2. Out with Ostracizing: Siblings don’t have to be around each other all of the time, but if your child treats their overweight sibling differently around their friends, their behavior should be corrected.
3. Consider how you feel: This is a tough one because all parents love their children and all parents view their children as a reflection of their parenting. A seemingly obvious “failure” like your child’s weight can be taken more personally than it should and make you treat your teen differently. Don’t let society’s negative stereotypes run the show when it comes to the love you have for your child.
4. Teen identity development: Remember your teen is developing their sense of self. Their physical characteristics (and the way our society rates different bodies and features) contribute to this identity whether they are underweight, overweight, or somewhere in-between. This identification can become a big obstacle in their effort to lose weight especially if sadness or depression seep in.
5. Make it a family value that people are worthy of love irrespective of their appearance. This is easier said than done since your teen will perceive their weight as an obstacle to being loved by you, their family, a significant other, or their peers. But keep working at it. Your loving reinforcement makes a huge difference, even if it doesn’t work miracles overnight.
Image courtesy of Rudd Center Image Gallery