Avoiding that “take charge” approach may be the best thing you can do as a parent of a child who has gained weight, pandemic or not. “We get the message that being a good parent means having a child in a certain-sized body, but I like to remind parents that they are not in charge of their child’s weight,” said Anna Lutz, a dietitian in private practice in Raleigh, N.C., who specializes in eating disorders and family feeding. “Instead of worrying about weight, focus on supporting kids in taking care of themselves emotionally and physically.”
Restricting food is often the first strategy parents try when they’re worried about a child’s weight, but Dr. Rowell counsels caution with that approach. “When we try to get kids to eat less in order to weigh less, we often see the very outcomes that we’re trying to prevent,” she said, referring to the work of the late Leann L. Birch, a developmental psychologist who showed in several famous experiments that overly controlling what children eat can cause them to fixate more on the foods parents don’t want them to have. That may manifest as a toddler demanding extra cookies or a teenager binge eating in the middle of the night. A study published in 2007 in the journal Obesity found that parents with anti-fat attitudes were the most likely to restrict their children around food. “If we are seeing a rise in weight dysregulation during the pandemic, part of that has to be laid at the feet of all of the fear-mongering we see about kids and weight,” Dr. Rowell said.
Instead of shaming or worrying about what (or how much) your kids are eating, work toward getting the whole family eating on a more predictable schedule, and then make sure that everyone can eat their fill at each meal and snack time. Amee Severson, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Bellingham, Wash., encouraged parents to avoid cutting kids off or pushing them to finish a plate, because both tactics disrupt a child’s ability to listen to their own hunger and fullness cues. She also emphasized that parents need to listen when kids say that they’re hungry, even if that happens an hour after lunch. “If eating has been chaotic, it may take a while for kids to fully trust that they will be fed reliably, and fed enough food,” Severson said.
It’s also possible that staying home has impacted your child’s eating in a positive way. “I think about my son, who didn’t eat much of his lunch at school because the short lunch time, loud cafeteria and cold brown bag lunch weren’t conducive to that,” said Lutz, the dietitian. “Now, he eats a full, hot lunch almost every day.”
On the physical activity front, you might brainstorm with your kids about how to get the family moving more without invoking weight loss as the goal. Standard advice like “get one hour of vigorous physical activity per day” may not be realistic right now, or ever, for some kids. “There have always been kids who enjoy sports and outdoor play most, and there have always been kids who prefer reading, writing and playing video games,” Severson said. “We can help them find forms of movement they love on their own terms.” That might look like TikTok dance routines or yoga videos for older kids, or building forts out of couch cushions for little ones.
If you think that your kid’s weight gain may be a symptom of depression, anxiety or another mental health issue, check in with them about those concerns and leave body size out of it. “This does not mean seeing how your kids are eating and asking judgmental questions,” Severson said. “This means saying, ‘How are you? What do you need right now?’” If your child’s mental distress is impacting their ability to function or if they have been struggling with anxiety or depressive symptoms, consider bringing in professional help.
For Elinor, it has been helpful to view her daughter’s body changes in the same light as she would a change in her kids’ academic performance this school year. “I am not worried about reading levels or body size,” she said. “I’m focused on mental health and overall safety.” And that’s the real goal, Lutz said: “Children need to know they are safe and cared for, and that they can trust their body’s changes, no matter what that is.”
Virginia Sole-Smith is the author of “The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image and Guilt in America,” and co-host of the Comfort Food Podcast