Attitude and choice of words important when talking to child about weight

In supporting and caring for children with overweight (including obesity), the attitude and choice of words of the professional is very important.

08/24/2020 | 9:28 AM

When the healthcare professional clearly shows that he or she has  the childs best interest at heart and wants to help them work on a healthier weight, then the conversation will be more pleasant for the child and the parents. It is also recommended to avoid negative, judgmental, and complicated words. This is evident from two studies led by health scientist Jutka Halberstadt. 

Invest in treatment relationship
When the care professionals show commitment to the child with overweight, learn about the child's circumstances and are aware of the child's previous negative experiences at, for example, school or during previous care, the conversation is more pleasant. In this way, the healthcare professional invests in a good treatment relationship so that the child and the parents trust the professional and feel supported.

Avoid negative word choice
A careful choice of words is important in the conversations between the professionals and children with overweight. This is illustrated by the fact that 45% of the children and 37% of the parents in the study have experienced a health care professional using a term they did not like and many common terms appear to be unknown. Examples of this are the terms overweight and BMI. Both are often used by a third of the health care professionals in the study, but do not always sit well with the children and their parents. The word overweight is experienced as negative by over a third and the abbreviation BMI is not understood by 60% of the children.

Positive words and attitude towards the child
The children in the study indicate that they prefer neutral or positive terms in the conversation about overweight, such as stocky, too heavy or working towards a healthier weight. The researchers also recommend checking during the conversation for understanding of and preferences for weight based terminology with the children and parents. In addition, it is good to realize that word use is only part of the conversation. The way in which a healthcare professional conveys the message, his attitude and the atmosphere are also important in strengthening the relationship with the child and parents.

Sensitive topic
Identifying and discussing overweight is a task for professionals in healthcare, education and welfare, but this can sometimes be difficult. Overweight and behavior can be sensitive issues and the wrong approach can harm the child and the parents, as well as the relationship between the professionals and the family. International research among adults and adolescents with overweight and among parents of children with overweight has shown that terms they perceive as deviant, offensive or accusatory reinforce weight-related stigmatization. This had not been researched before in the Netherlands.