One of the biggest barriers for parents who have been told by their doctors that their child is significantly overweight and needs to improve their health by changing their eating and exercise habits, is getting their child to exercise.
This sometimes sounds easier than it is and many parents struggle with how to get their child active without feeling like they are forcing them to do something they don’t want to do, or something that will cause them psychological harm.
I’m going to give you one tip that has worked very well for many of the families I’ve seen over the years. In order for it to work you have to be persistent and believe that you are doing what’s best for your child.
Tip #1: Find out what your child loves to do
Why is this so important?
In order to make exercise fun for your child it is important to find out what they love and what they are good at, or can be good at. This can be a really challenging thing for many families with overweight kids. This is because children sometimes back out of sports or exercising if they have been teased or if they notice that they can’t keep up with teammates or aren’t as good as others. Parents may also think that they are saving their child from being humiliated or saving their child’s self-esteem by allowing them not to be in these sports/exercise situations. However, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because without opportunities to exercise and practice the child begins to lose the mental and physical skills needed to be successful in sports and/or to enjoy the experience of exercise. Your child becomes more out of shape and does not develop the motor skills that would help them enjoy sports and physical activity.
What is the step exactly?
If your child is naturally athletic and it is clear what they enjoy make sure they have several opportunities to participate in those activities. Remember that all children should be doing some form of exercise seven days a week for one hour. If you need to figure out what your child likes you need to expose them to a variety of activities. Sign them up for a camp where they can participate in many different activities over three months so that they can see what they are good at and what they enjoy. As an example we offer triathlon training for 12 weeks. The children can swim, bike and run and discover which of these activities they enjoy most. Some youth summer camps and after school programs are also great ways for them to be exposed to different activities.
How does it work?
Don’t give your child the option to say “no” to all activities. Give them a choice. For example, “Hey Sandra, I’m going to sign you up for a fun activity for the next three months, would you rather do the Fit Family Triathlon training or go to our community center for their three month camp program?” If Sandra says, “I don’t want to do any of them, they are boring.” You can say,
“Ok, I understand that you feel that way, but as a family we stay active all the time and I know you will end up enjoying something at any of these programs so why don’t you think about it for the rest of the day and if you still can’t decide I’ll make it easier for you and I’ll just pick one of the programs. If you don’t like it we’ll switch you to something else after the three month commitment is over.” You can also add, “I know you may be scared of doing something new, meeting new people, or worrying that you may not be good, but we and the coaches will help you and we’ll figure out a way to make it a great experience even if it may be hard sometimes as you learn something new.” All of this allows your child to know that you are going to help them no matter what, and that they have a parent who has their best interests in mind even if they themselves may not want to do something. Children need their parents to set up boundaries and structures. This type of structure set by parents helps children feel safe and parented well even if they may not be able to verbalize that. If your child gets to decide everything or refuses things that are good for them and parents don’t push them to do it, they feel they are running the show, which is a very scary thing for a child (or even a teen) who technically cannot support him/herself. They need you to structure opportunities for them as they learn to navigate the world. These lessons help them learn what is healthy or not.
Note on the three-month time limit: I would use this timeline as a complete minimum if your child is participating in the activity several days per week i.e. 3-5 times per week. If they do an activity less often you can extend your minimum to a longer time period. This time just allows them to get a feel for the sport or activity and learn what it’s like, make some friends and develop some confidence. However it takes many more months for many kids to get comfortable and skilled at a sport so talking to your child and helping support their involvement in whatever you sign them up for will be helpful.
To learn more helpful tips
We currently have a special deal on our Fit Family System, which is a program for parents who have been informed by their doctors that their child has to lose weight and improve their eating and exercise habits in order to prevent or reverse medical conditions that they are facing.
When do you need to seek additional support?
If you feel you can’t get your child active despite worrying about their health and having their doctors repeatedly telling you that they need to exercise.
You and/or your child feel very angry, guilty, depressed or helpless about the situation. To set up a consultation please contact us at 510-981-1471.
Thanks so much,
Cory Nyamora, Psy.D.