Q. My 6-year-old daughter weighs almost 75 pounds. When she was 2- 1/2 , she gained a lot of weight and the pediatrician classified her as obese because she was 20 percent above normal weight. She craves junk all the time, and she's always looking for something to eat. She doesn't like to exercise or play with other kids because she gets tired very easily. I went to a nutritionist, but she just lectured me about not giving in to snack requests. I'm heartbroken for my daughter. I'm afraid being overweight will hurt her self-esteem. What can I do?
A. Don't despair! First of all, you're not alone. American children (and their parents) are gaining more weight than ever. In fact, one in five school-aged kids is at least 20 percent above his or her ideal weight.
Why are so many children overweight? One reason is that American children are continually exposed to food at huge supermarkets, concession stands at the movies, food wagons in parks and fast food restaurants in train and bus terminals. Plus, it's ever-present in media advertising. Another reason is that a great deal of the food we favor is filled with sugar, fat and calories. Our kids are eating the wrong foods and more of them, and they're also exercising much less than they need to be. Eight- to 18-year-old Americans devote more than 7 1/2 hours a day to entertainment media—surfing the Internet, watching TV and DVDs, playing video games—in a typical day, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. That means there's very little time in their lives to run, swim, play ball, skate or ride a bike.
These are all general problems that many families face. But there are also particular problems that you need to think about in relation to your daughter. Her constant need to eat, for example, may indicate that she's turning to food to comfort herself from significant emotional distress. Her craving for junk food (which is usually high in sugar), her lack of desire to play or move and her fatigue could also be signs of childhood depression.
To help your daughter, you need to understand what triggered her overeating and weight gain when she was two and a half. Was there the death of someone she loved? The loss of a familiar babysitter? A separation or divorce in the family? The birth of a sibling? An illness or hospitalization? Any one of these events can emotionally disrupt a child's development, causing a change in eating habits. This change then initiates a vicious cycle: The more weight your daughter gains, the worse she feels about herself, and the worse she feels about herself, the more she turns to food for solace.
In addition to these emotional factors, environmental, genetic and physical factors need to be taken into account. If you or others in your family are overweight, your daughter is likely to identify with this overeating parent or sibling. Remember, too, that there is a wide range of normal weight levels due to differences in height, bone density and body type, so make sure that you are taking these factors into account when evaluating your daughter's weight. Not everyone is destined to be tall and thin.
There's a lot you can do now to help your 6-year-old lose weight.
If you can follow through on these suggestions, you have a good chance of helping your daughter begin to lose weight and also helping her to repair her emotional and physical health. Good luck!
Ava Siegler, Ph.D., is the founder of the Institute for Child, Adolescent & Family Studies in New York City, and the author of What Should I Tell the Kids? A Parent's Guide to Real Problems in the Real World and The Essential Guide to the New Adolescence: How to Raise an Emotionally Healthy Teenager. She is married and the mother of two children.