Talk to the schools
It’s important to meet with someone at the school, particularly if a child is in grade school. Meet with their teachers, because of the issue of school parties. They often have quite a number of days in a row when they have cupcakes for birthdays, end of the year parties, or holiday parties. Encourage teachers to present alternative snacks that are healthful or even nonfood related rewards. But some schools will reward kids with food, so I think it’s important to establish that you have some goals for your child that are health related and that include weight management, and that you would like the school to help you accomplish them. A byproduct of this approach is that the other children in the class can achieve better health too.
Jan Hangen, Clinical Nutritionist
Advocating for healthier food
Schools are inundated with processed foods, which come from soda sponsorships, vending machines, and soda machines. Also, a lot of the foods provided by the USDA sponsored lunch program tend to be processed foods like chicken nuggets, hot dogs, hamburgers, and other fast foods. So I think that parents really need to be advocates for healthy eating at their children’s schools. This doesn’t necessarily mean going in and saying specifically, “My child has a weight problem and we need to change it;” they can go to a PTA meeting with other parents. Just about every parent I talk to realizes the problem and is unhappy with the quality of food provided at their school. If parents go in to talk with other parents, I think they’ll find what I found: how unhappy parents are with the food quality. Then, at that PTA meeting, or any other type of school meeting, you won’t be the only person who stands up to say something, and when you say something you will have lots of support among the audience. That’s what really starts to spark change, more so than just one person saying something. You really need a collective voice.
At a school, I think you could talk to one teacher individually if you felt that there were excessive sweets, cupcakes, brownies and those types of things for various class celebrations. I know a lot of teachers hand out candy as a reward for doing well on tests and for perfect attendance. Talk with the teacher about your dissatisfaction with that, and try to get other parents involved as well. Then, when it’s your turn to provide something for a birthday party, try to think of something healthier to bring in, instead of cakes and cookies.
Kelly Sinclair, Clinical Nutritionist
Talk to the schools
It’s important to meet with someone at the school, particularly if a child is in grade school. Meet with their teachers, because of the issue of school parties. They often have quite a number of days in a row when they have cupcakes for birthdays, end of the year parties, or holiday parties. Encourage teachers to present alternative snacks that are healthful, or even nonfood related rewards. But some schools will reward kids with food, so I think it’s important to establish that you have some goals for your child that are health related and that include weight management, and that you would like the school to help you accomplish them. A byproduct of this approach is that the other children in the class can achieve better health too.
Jan Hangen, Clinical Nutritionist
Teasing is never okay
One of the things that is very hard is that there is a lot of teasing. I think I am getting the message across to patients that teasing is not okay– it is never okay. Children need to inform adults; when they are very young, they need to inform parents, teachers and principals, in order to get everyone involved and make the school aware of the teasing situation. That way, hopefully, the school can address the teasing and target it before the teasing grows and becomes exacerbated. Without help, that’s where I think issues of low self-esteem often arise, because if children are already feeling really badly about themselves and somebody makes a comment about their being fat, it is just one more negative issue for the child to cope with. Hopefully in the clinic we will be able to increase the child’s self-confidence and their feelings of self-worth so that any comments that are made can have less of a negative impact. But it is a really difficult issue and children unfortunately can be very mean. I think in some ways it becomes easier as our patients grow older, because there is less of that sort of viciousness. But particularly when they are young, being significantly overweight unfortunately just makes them a notably easy target.
Nicole Eldridge Marcus, PhD, Behavioral Therapist
Working with schools to address teasing
I think that there are multiple opportunities for parents to work with schools, and what I remind parents of is that school is almost like the child’s job– they’re at school for a very significant period of time during the day. Also, there is a social component to school as well as an academic component. Things may happen on the playground that the teacher and the principal aren’t aware of, so as a parent it’s really important to keep that line of communication open. I also really encourage parents to call or to go in and have a conversation, because we can’t rely on little kids to pass notes back and forth– that’s too much pressure on them, especially if they know that the note is about teasing or bullying. I also talk a lot with the kids about what they can do either telling the teacher or telling their parents. Bullies are very good at saying, “Don’t tell,” and I don’t want the child who is being bullied to get into a position where they can’t tell because they’re too afraid. It would be terrible if the child were too scared to go to school, because school’s important. There have been several families who have reached a point where the mom and dad are really frustrated and don’t know what to do next, and in that case I’ll take that neutral role and call the school to figure out how we can all address this together.
Jennifer Rein, MSW Social Worker and Clinical Coordinator
What to do about teasing
Teasing is probably the biggest challenge we face in helping and supporting the children who come through the program. Age and maturity level are really important factors in addressing it. If it is a young child who is being teased or bullied, there are many limitations on what the child can do in that situation, so it really requires a lot more direct involvement from the parent. The parent needs to both support their child and validate how upsetting those experiences can be, and try and have open communication about the teasing.
If it is happening at school, they must bring it to the school’s attention. It is just not healthy for a child to be teased or bullied at school. If parents are willing to address it with the school we recommend that, and there are also times when we talk to the school, to try to educate them about the environment that the child has been reporting to us. I think parents of older kids should think about what it is like emotionally to be teased and to cope with all of those feelings that come up. But they should also try to figure out how to respond. At certain ages, it may not feel appropriate to go to the school, and the child may not want that to happen, for fear of more teasing or bullying. So we talk with parents and kids about how the kids themselves can respond. If they react back or lash out, that tends to reinforce kids teasing them again. Some kids are even teased for eating salad, but most are teased for their size and shape. I think it is really important for parents to emotionally support their kids.
I think another thing we do is to encourage parents to help the child enlist the support of positive peers and get the child involved in positive experiences in which they won’t be subjected to a lot of ridicule and teasing. So if you know that a child is going to be exposed to a great amount of teasing in a certain environment, you might steer him or her away towards another environment that is more supportive. I think another thing that comes up a lot is teasing at home– teasing by siblings or sometimes even parents. This kind of teasing can really sabotage our patients as they try to make healthier choices. We say to the parents that it is up to them to respond to teasing from their other child appropriately, through discipline, limit setting, and really explaining how that behavior is sabotaging their brother or sister’s efforts. We really encourage parents to get involved.
Allison Lauretti, PhD, Staff Psychologist