Overweight Kids? Feed Them Compassion and Mindfulness

05/20/2010 12:32 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

If your neighborhood is anything like mine, there are lots and lots of kids who weigh more than is healthy. Society has labeled this situation a public health disaster, but all too often the kids internalize the message and feel that they are the problem. Sure, the standard response of advocating healthy nutrition and physical activity makes sense. But as anyone who has struggled with weight loss knows, these "fix its" don't address the deeper issues. Overweight kids hunger for more than food, and as parents, it's all too easy to enforce a diet that inadvertently reduces compassion and mindfulness for everyone.

As I see it, three basic steps can enhance every recipe for weight loss:

  1. Pour on the compassion, for your kid and, yes, for yourself. The reality of needing to lose weight (much less losing the weight) is painful, and your kid already knows this. Active compassion means having the desire -- and taking appropriate action -- to reduce suffering. When your kid isn't at a healthy weight, everyone in your home might be suffering as a result. If we're talking about promoting the child's wellbeing, much less healthy eating, then compassion is the ultimate comfort food.
  2. Give time for mindfulness to simmer Mindfulness means paying attention to what's happening, in and around you, in the present moment. You're the parent, so you get to go first. Practicing mindfulness improves mental focus and emotional balance, and this means mindfulness can help you tune into your kid's needs more easily, and catch yourself more quickly before you might do (or say) something counter-productive. Loving parents often worry about their kids, and sometimes these worries morph into critical statements or hurtful, shaming actions. In the end, these well intentioned but not-so-well-executed actions can easily become distasteful for everyone.
  3. Share a taste for mindful eating. Helping your kids develop and maintain mindfulness can bolster their weight loss and also foster a healthy enjoyment of food. Teach them that eating slowly and savoring each bite is far more pleasurable than gulping their food (and then having to wait for everyone else to finish). Not only does mindful eating celebrate food, it also increases the likelihood that your kids will notice when they feel full and naturally stop because they know that they've had enough.

We tend to have greater motivation for enjoyable endeavors than overtly unpleasant activities (or those which cause us to feel badly about ourselves). In general, dieting and exercising are far easier and more compelling for slim, active people, than their heavier and more sedentary peers. After all, the threshold is lower if your weight and fitness level are already closer to the goal. Kids know this, too, and for severely overweight kids, especially, that awareness contributes to the misery of hearing that they need to eat less and move more.

No matter who delivers the verdict -- be it a doctor, or coach, or yes, you, the parent -- overweight kids are likely to feel bad. Honest statements like, "You need to lose weight" might accurately describe reality, but the implicit judgment and subtle messages aren't constructive. It's time to find a different way to describe reality. This means, it's time to frame issues related to body mass more positively and emphasize the "means" not the "ends."

So, it boils down to this: if you want your kid to achieve a healthy weight (notice the framing here), then express that desire with as much love as you can, provide as many practical aids as possible and stay present to support your child in the process. Focus on what you can do today, not how many pounds need to disappear by next month.

Consider practicing mindfulness together by taking a bite of something wonderfully tasty and slowly chewing before swallowing. Notice each sensation and discuss it. Do it again with a different food. Compare the experiences of eating and drinking, feeling hungry and feeling satiated. Watch how fast you (both) eat, and prolong your meals as a family so everyone has more time at the table. Pay attention to how much, and what, and when, you eat.

You can also apply mindfulness to physical activity. Experiment with noticing body sensations when moving slowly, moving quickly, and then while resting. Focus on feeling the pulse, and helping your kid make the experiential connection between breath and heart rates. Work with your child on developing the confidence to know when physical activity is intense but safe, and when it's too much. Simple though it sounds, the hardest part is teaching your kid to cultivate the self-awareness that leads to being in the body.

Mindfulness is a skill, not a panacea. Promoting healthy eating and physical activity also requires effort, education, and tenacity. Mindfulness enhances all these ingredients; it's like an internal timer that rings to catch your attention. For example, applying mindfulness can help you notice if the standard approaches don't seem to work for your kid. And if you recognize that reality, your mindfulness will facilitate deeper inquiry and action, such as bringing your child to the doctor to explore possible medical factors (such as insulin resistance).

Above all, mindfulness is about being present -- it's about seeing what actually is, and responding accordingly. Mindfulness supports compassion, providing a strategy through which we learn to notice suffering, generate caring, and extend our energy to alleviate pain. Remember, compassion satisfies the deepest of hungers -- for those who act compassionately as well as those to whom compassion is offered.