NMSU: Parents' Feelings about Overweight Children
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Authors: Respectively, Extension Child Development and Family Life Specialist; Professor and Director, Marriage and Family Therapy Training Program; New Mexico State University.

Parents are the most important people in their children’s lives. Parents experience joy in watching their children grow into healthy adults but also have a responsibility to care for and protect their children. In the case of parents having a child who is overweight, it is important for them to accept their child unconditionally. Yet it is also important that parents recognize their own needs and feelings about the issue. The following information provides a balance between parents meeting their children’s needs while understanding how to deal with their possible negative feelings of having an overweight child.

How do parents feel when they have children who are overweight?

When people become parents, they have high hopes for their children. They want them to have all their fingers and toes; they want them to be healthy and happy. Often they want other things too. They want their kids to be pretty or handsome, smart, popular and successful. What happens to parents if they think their children are not physically attractive, smart or popular?

If children do not live up to parents’ hopes and expectations, parents can experience negative feelings. Parents of an overweight child might feel:

  • Disappointed that their child did not turn out the way they hoped
  • Sad that their child might feel bad about himself
  • Guilty that they did something wrong or could have done something differently
  • Angry that this had to happen to them and their child
  • Disillusioned with the joys they thought parenthood would bring
  • Embarrassed about how the child looks compared to other children
  • Ashamed of how the child looks in her clothes
  • Irresponsible about how they are raising their child
  • Grief stricken that the child did not turn out the way they had hoped
  • Over-protective about how other people treat their child

On the other hand, parents may also have feelings that are positive. This is their child whom they love! They might feel:

  • Proud that their child tries new things
  • Happy that their child has positive qualities like cooperation or a love of reading
  • Pleased that their child has a good heart and is kind to others
  • Excited that they enjoy good times together
  • Appreciation that they have a child to love and guide
  • Joy in watching their child grow and learn
  • Satisfaction in knowing they are contributing to their child’s life
  • Impressed with their child’s willingness to be active
  • Thankful that their child has all kinds of possibilities
  • Content in knowing their child is loved and will turn out OK

I understand the positive feelings, but are the negative feelings normal?

Yes, feelings are real and cannot be ignored. All feelings, good or bad, are normal and need to be experienced, not disregarded. These negative feelings relate to grief and a sense of loss for what might have been or for what should have been. Parents can’t pretend to feel one way when they really feel another. Parents have negative feelings all the time about their children. For example, when children misbehave parents feel angry; when children let them down, parents feel disappointed. Parents might have a hard time feeling good about their overweight child when they really feel ashamed, angry, or guilty and do not deal with these negative feelings.

The good news is that there are ways parents can deal with these negative feelings and eventually move on to honestly feel good about their overweight children. In most cases, the positive feelings parents have for their child far outweigh the negative feelings they may have.

What is NOT normal or acceptable is for parents to take out their negative feelings on their child. Sometimes parents are so overwhelmed with sadness, anger and disappointment over their child not turning out the way they had hoped, that they take it out on the child. They may say mean things or yell or treat the child differently because they are ashamed, or feel guilty or over-protective. We don’t like to think about parents feeling or acting this way, but it does happen. Taking negative feelings out on their child is not good for the parent–child relationship and is not acceptable behavior.

What can parents do to deal with these negative feelings?

All feelings are normal, but what parents do about negative feelings has rules. How parents behave toward the overweight child takes some thought and practice in order to make sure parents and children continue to feel good about themselves and each other. One way to deal with negative feelings is to identify feelings and deal with them by developing an action plan.

I. Identify the negative and positive feelings you have. Say the feelings out loud. Try to figure out where the negative feelings are coming from. Are they left over from your own childhood? Are they coming from people around you? Choose from the list of negative and positive feelings listed earlier or choose your own.

II. Deal with the negative feelings by developing an action plan.

  1. Talk to other adults you can trust to be confidential with your feelings. It might be your spouse, a religious leader, teacher, therapist, your own parent, or a good friend. Talking about feelings can lessen the intensity of the feeling or get the feeling out of your system.

  2. If you can’t talk to someone else, write your feelings on paper and read them out loud. Making feelings real by putting them on paper makes them less powerful and easier to deal with.

  3. Use positive self talk. Positive self talk is a way of talking to yourself and telling yourself positive things. This helps you deal with negative feelings by turning the negative into a positive, so you can move on. An example of positive self talk is “I love my kid, but I have a problem with his weight. When I see him hanging out of his clothes I feel sorry for him. I don’t want him to be made fun of. But he is a fun person, I like talking to him about his favorite games, and I like the pictures he draws. He makes me happy in other ways”.

  4. Re-focus attention from your negative feelings to positive traits of your child. This is your job as a parent. Do not ignore your feelings; deal with them, but remember your first priority is your child’s well being. Talk about your child’s positive traits to other people in front of your child.

  5. Start or join a parent discussion group that deals with feelings parents have about their children or seek professional counseling to talk about and deal with negative feelings.

No child is perfect, as no parent is perfect. No one meets our expectations 100 percent of the time. When parents acknowledge and deal with negative feelings they may have about their overweight child, they can move on to accept the situation and develop a positive relationship with their child.

Practice Situation A

Now it’s time for you to practice using the previous information. Identify and deal with feelings in the following situation.

    Sandy is 11 years old, loves animals and wants some new fashionable clothes just like all the other girls. She is overweight for her height and some of the new styles just don’t look good on her. Her parents give in and allow her to buy and wear the new clothes, but wonder what will happen when her friends at school see her in the unbecoming-style clothing.

The following uses the procedure for dealing with feelings related to overweight children, which was described earlier. The answers are italicized.

I. Identify the parents’ negative and positive feelings.Sad and over-protective about how Sandy might get teased at school; ashamed of how Sandy looks in her clothes; guilty about feeling ashamed; impressed that Sandy cares about what she wears; happy that she loves animals.

II. Deal with the negative feelings by developing an action plan.

  1. Who can the parents talk to about their feelings? Teacher, good friend, each other.

  2. What if the parents feel they have no one they can talk to? They can write their feelings down on paper.

  3. What can the parents say to themselves as positive self talk? “Sandy is fun to be around; she has many wonderful traits and I love her very much. She wants to look like her friends by buying fashionable clothes even if I don’t think she looks good in them. Her close friends also care about her because she is good to them”. Should the parents talk about their negative feelings to their child? No.

  4. After acknowledging negative feelings, how can the parents re-shift their focus to help their child? Look at Sandy’s strengths or positive qualities such as the fact she loves animals. Talk about this positive trait to other people in front of Sandy.

  5. What other things can the parents do? Join a discussion group or seek professional counseling as a way to talk about and deal with negative feelings.

Activity Idea—Parents’ Feelings about Overweight Children

This activity provides parents practice in dealing with their feelings about having overweight children.

Materials needed

  • Handout, “Parents’ Feelings about Overweight Children”.
  • Newsprint and marker or chalkboard and chalk.

Doing the activity

  1. Introduce the activity by asking parents how they feel about having overweight children.

  2. Pass out the handout and read through the information with the parents.

  3. Read practice situation A and ask if parents have been in similar situations.

  4. Ask parents to fill in the answers to practice situation B (see possible answers below). Encourage parents to talk about answers with each other. This is not a test but a way to encourage discussion.

  5. Go through each question and write parents’ answers on newsprint or a chalkboard.

Practice Situation B

Identify and deal with feelings in this situation.

    Joe is 9 years old and wants to play basketball. He is very overweight for his height and is trying to be more active. He’s on the school team because everyone gets to join if they want. He knows that some people make fun of him because of his weight. This Saturday, it’s shirts vs. skins, which means he may play without his shirt on.

I. Identify the parents’ negative and positive feelings.

II. Deal with the negative feelings by developing an action plan.

  1. Who can the parents talk to about their feelings?

  2. What if the parents feel they have no one they can talk to?

  3. What can the parents say to themselves as positive self talk? Should the parents talk about their negative feelings to their child?

  4. After acknowledging negative feelings, how can the parents re-shift their focus to help their child?

  5. What other things can the parents do?

Answers to Practice Situation B

There are more possible answers than those listed.

I. Identify the parents’ negative and positive feelings. Embarrassed because Joe will look overweight in front of all those people; proud of Joe wanting to be active and taking a chance; over-protective by wanting to keep Joe from being made fun of and getting his feelings hurt.

II. Deal with the negative feelings by developing anaction plan.

  1. Who can the parents talk to about their feelings? The teacher, each other, other parents.

  2. What if the parents feel they have no one they can talk to? They could write down their feelings in a notebook or a journal.

  3. What can the parents say to themselves as positive self talk? Should the parents talk about their negative feelings to their child? “Joe is going to play without his shirt and may not look too good, but I’m proud of him for getting out there and being active. That is a good habit that will help him all through his life. I love that kid!” Parents should never talk to their children about their own negative feeling. Parents should talk to another trusted adult about their feelings, not their child.

  4. After acknowledging negative feelings, how can the parents re-shift their focus to help their child? Play basketball with Joe. Talk about how much you enjoy playing basketball with Joe and how active he is to others and in front of Joe.

  5. What other things can the parents do? Start a parent discussion group or see a counselor.

To find more resources for your business, home, or family, visit the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences on the World Wide Web at aces.nmsu.edu.

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Printed and electronically distributed August 2006, Las Cruces, NM.