Accepting responsibility for an overweight child is not easy and, unfortunately, a lot of parents still refuse to do so. They like to blame the school, the government, food manufacturers or even the child themselves. But ultimately, parents are the creators. They created the mind the child has because they are the most influential person in their lives. They created the environment, the routine, the emotional space they are in and everything to make sure that child thrived. That’s why it’s so hard accepting that there is something lacking, something that a child is replacing with food. Parents look at everything their child has and think, it is enough, and for them it may be, but for the child, a person that is not them, it may be different.
Weight changes how you feel as a parent because it is visible, it can feel like physical proof of failure, of imperfection, a bad reflection on you. If your child was sick that warrants empathy because there is no blame for that, it is without a cause. No one is responsible for it so there is no one to focus the emotion on. But our society sees weight as self-inflicted and we don’t hold empathy for anything self-inflicted because there is blame, and we are always afraid of where that blame sits. Blame is a defence. The normal emotional reaction of a parent to help their child becomes clouded by our desire to avoid judgment from others. That anxiety caused by assuming we know the opinion of other people can be enough to ensure that self-preservation replaces parental instinct.
As a parent you have the most ability to change what your child is feeling because you have the most emotional weight. You are their memory, their first learning and connection, you made them body and mind and you are their emotional set point, they will look to you to know how to feel. This means everything you teach will mean more. Think about the strongest memories we teach children:
-If I am good she/he likes me
-If I am naughty, she/he doesn’t like me
-If I do that he/she will be disappointed in me
This is the reason that, even as adults, a lot of us revert to our childhood feelings and behaviours when we see our parents. Yes, we have all our adult memories, experiences, and learnings, but our childhood memories come back easily because there is an instant emotional link there. All our emotional connection with our parents was created in our child brain and so it stays there. This means your influence as a parent will last forever, both good and bad, right, and wrong.
When we are children our parents are always ‘right’, so anything they do or say must also be ‘right’. That means your child will believe any disappointment, shame, resentment or anger you show them as being ‘right’. Sometimes you don’t even need to say anything for them to know how you feel in that moment. As soon as a child can pick up on the emotion of others (ages 2-3) they can tell if you are feeling sad or happy or stressed. They know if, in that moment, you don’t want them or don’t like them. As your child has a smaller world than you, as they have less concept of anything else that may be affecting how you feel, they will immediately feel responsible for how you are behaving toward them. Their first assumption is always that they created how you feel. You are their world, they assume they are yours and so they must be responsible.
Being a parent is hard. Being a parent of a child who is unhappy is even harder because it can feel like failure. You did everything you could, you taught everything that you knew and it wasn’t enough. It can be easy to give up, to let them be unhappy, to get angry or start with the ‘tough love’. But with children who are using food to feel better, any kind of dismissal or anger or forced action will only ever feel like more lack of love, more lack of security, more lack of acceptance. By taking responsibility for your child as your creation, you can finally help because to do so you must completely accept the child as they are. Accepting them with their weight, eating, accepting all the negative feeling you may have about how they look or behave, means you stop fighting against what you don’t want to look at and just let it in.
Extract from my new book ‘My Overweight Child’, coming later this year.