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Parents Say Discussing Weight More Difficult Than Talking About Sex, Drugs

Kids Talking About Weight

First Posted: 09/16/11 05:51 PM ET Updated: 11/15/11 05:12 AM ET

Maybe it's because it's a less mainstream topic. Maybe it's because they're worried about their own weight. Whatever the reason, a new study shows that parents would rather talk to their kids about alcohol, sex, drugs or smoking than being overweight.

The study, conducted by Sanford Health and WebMD, surveyed more than 1,200 parents and more than 1,000 children aged eight to 17, as well as 502 pediatricians. Twenty-two percent of parents reported that they felt uncomfortable talking with their children about weight though nearly 40 percent felt being overweight might affect at least one of their children in the future. By comparison, 88 percent of parents of 13-17 year olds said they felt ok talking about sex, and 88 percent of parents of eight to 12 year olds felt fine about discussing drugs. Perhaps as a result, more than 90 percent of the children surveyed responded that drugs, cigarettes and alcohol were bad for their health, but only 85 percent ranked "being overweight" as a risk.

"Parents are very nervous," says Dr. Susan Bartell, a psychologist, author and WebMD contributor to Raising Fit Kids. "They're worried that if they touch on the subject of weight, their child could develop an eating disorder."

So what's the best way to broach this difficult topic? "Parents need to frame the conversation as a group effort," says Bartell. "Say, 'we're going to do this as a family so that we can be healthier, so that you can have enough energy to play with your friends and do well in school,'" she says. "Don't use the words 'weight,' 'fat,' 'calories' or 'diet.' Instead focus the conversation with words and phrases like 'health,' 'energy,' 'fueling your body' and 'smart choices.'"

Dr. Bartell also recommends avoiding labeling foods or activities as "good" or "bad." "The key is moderation," she explains. "It's okay to have a little bit of chocolate or stay up late on Friday night if you're making healthy choices the rest of the time. If your child starts to feel deprived, he or she may start to sneak foods when they're away from home."

The key, she believes, is that regardless of whether it's an awkward discussion, it's the parents' job to bring it up. While only one percent of parents felt that doctors should discuss sex, drugs or alcohol with their child, nineteen percent said their pediatrician should talk to their children about weight and obesity. However, more than half of doctors said they worried about their patient's -- and their patient's parents' -- emotional reactions to discussing maintaining a healthy weight.

"Parents really need to take the lead," she says. "It's never to early -- or too late -- to talk about this. You can always make a healthy change in your family's life."

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