The words that pediatricians use to discuss weight and its effect on health with young patients and their parents can have a big impact on whether the message is heard. For instance, a recent study suggests that terms doctors use to motivate overweight adults to slim down don’t necessarily work for children.
Researchers from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, surveyed American parents of children between the ages of 2 and 18. They assessed parents’ perceptions of 10 common terms used to described excess body weight: extremely obese, high BMI, weight problem, unhealthy weight, weight, heavy, obese, overweight, chubby and fat. Parents were asked to indicate how much they perceived each term to be desirable, stigmatizing, blaming, or motivating to lose weight, using a five-point scale.
Not surprisingly, parents rated the terms “weight,” “unhealthy weight,” and “high BMI” as most desirable, least stigmatizing, least blaming, and most motivating for a child to lose weight. On the other hand, they rated “chubby,” “obese,” “extremely obese,” and “fat” as the opposite—the most undesirable, stigmatizing, blaming, and least motivating for a child to lose weight.
While the use of stigmatizing terms may tap into successful “scare tactics” for overweight adults, the use of such terms in conversations with children can have dangerous effects. It may cause them to avoid physical activity, to develop unhealthy eating habits and to suffer psychologically. Even more troublesome, the words a doctor uses can directly affect a parent’s response. For instance, when a doctor used words that were considered stigmatizing, parents were more likely to put their child on a strict diet, avoid future medical appointments or seek a new doctor. All of these things can obviously have harmful implications on a child’s health.
The researchers concluded that “using weight-based language that families find supportive and motivating, and by avoiding labels that instill stigma and shame, providers can help empower families in their efforts to improve health.” Should you ever feel uncomfortable with the way your child’s medical care is administered, you must talk to your doctor. If it’s not going in an appropriate direction, especially if it may affect the care your child receives, it’s due time to weigh your alternatives. Communication is key in any relationship.
Taking this message one step closer to home, you should never underestimate the power of your own words and the effect that it has on your children. If it’s offensive to you, it’s undoubtedly offensive to your kids. So, let’s be careful with the way in which we communicate. Put simply, it’s not about linguistics—it’s about respect.
Excellent article Angela! Couldn’t agree more…we have to be very aware of our choice of words and the messages that our children are receiving about themselves. I’ve always taught my daughter that Healthy comes in lots of different sizes!
Our words are indeed powerful, thankfully they can be powerful in a positive way too!
Thanks Kia. Unfortunately size comes before healthy for many, but if we model the proper attitude/behavior when our kids are at an early age they’ll be more likely to have a healthy view of themselves for years to come.
Kudos, Angela. Great insight! This definitely goes for parents, too. For as long as I can remember, my father told me and everyone else how lugging me around on his hip as a heavy baby gave him back troubles for life. Well, I guess I lived up to his view of me. Wasn’t until I hit 50 that I changed that. Now 86 pounds lighter, I had someone say to me, “Marcia, you are soooo small.” I stood in shock because no one had ever said those words to me. And they were the most beautiful words I’d ever heard! I kept repeating them over and over all day, so they’d stick with me. All my life I was told that I was a big person, big boned and just big. It’s amazing how you live up to that!
It is incredible what “sticks” with us as we age. Glad to hear you’ve changed the channel Marcia and took control!