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.

Reference: Parental Perceptions of Weight Terminology – Puhl, Paterson, & Luedicke (2011)