A friend’s daughter recently came home from kinder in tears because another kid called her fat. She’s four years old.
It’s shocking, but not surprising, that children so young are using the word as a weapon to hurt and shame other children. After all, they’ve been watching grown-ups do it all their lives. Children pick up from TV, movies, and books that fat is a synonym for bad.
As a parent it’s heartbreaking to see your child being teased for being fat, and it’s very difficult to know what to say and do.
Here’s the “dos” and “don’ts” from three experts on how to respond if your child is being teased for being fat.
Psychologist and director of BodyMatters Australasia, Sarah McMahon
Do: Take your child’s concerns seriously
Body shame and weight-based bullying causes significant distress and cost to young people. It also serves as a risk factor for developing eating disorders.
Check in with your child to find out how they feel about their body. Try to do it in the same way you would make time to discuss any other concerns they have, such as how they’re getting on with their friends or their studies.
Parents can be powerful agents to build body confidence and body trust. Be mindful of how you talk about your body, their body and other people’s bodies. People should never be shamed for their bodies. Ever.
That includes you. Be kinder to yourself. Avoid “fat talk” or “diet talk” about your own life, or that of others.
And remember that the key issue is not actually the child’s weight; it is how they feel about their weight.
Don’t: Encourage weight loss or dieting
Encouraging weight loss will serve to validate the opinion of body bullies. It will send the message that, yes, your child’s body actually is defective, ugly, unhealthy, overweight, and cannot be trusted around food.
Avoid dieting yourself. It models and normalises this unhealthy behaviour, and can pass on body anxieties to your child. After all, your children share your DNA so if there is something wrong with your body they’ll assume there is something wrong with theirs.
A hallmark of health is balance. You can be confident that if your child lives a balanced lifestyle, their weight will settle at the right place for them.
Medical doctor, board member of The Butterfly Foundation and author of If Not Dieting, Then What?, Dr Rick Kausman
Do: Understand that weight and wellness are not the same thing
Contrary to popular belief, you cannot judge a person’s health just by looking and them or calculating their BMI. Kids grow at different rates, bodies change over time, and all bodies are different.
Instead of worrying about your child’s shape and size, put your energies into providing the best environment you can to help your child be as healthy as they can.
Provide them with a variety of yummy food and opportunities and encouragement to move their bodies in an enjoyable way. Focus on the process of living a healthy life rather than weight loss as a goal.
Don't: Put your child on a diet
Nothing good can come from weight-loss dieting. The research is very clear: if a person focuses on weight and changing weight, it doesn’t last. Very often it results in more weight gain.
Worse, the focus on weight creates weight stigma and the research is highlighting that weight stigma is much more harmful to a person than being at a higher weight.
Don’t treat your children differently based on their weight. Don’t allow the skinny child to have an extra serve of chocolate while denying the child with a bigger body. Children will rebel against that, sneak food and become shameful “closet eaters”.
Friendship expert and founder of URSTRONG, Dana Kerford
Do: Empower your child to stand up to mean-on-purpose behaviour.
Children know that calling someone “fat” is wrong and intentionally cruel. Teach children to say a quick comeback like “not cool” or “that’s hurtful”, and immediately walk away.
Children who get away with saying hurtful comments will continue to do so.
Teaching your child to stand up for themselves also helps to build their sense of self-worth, reinforcing that they don’t deserve to be treated that way.
If your child is the target of hurtful comments, shower them love and affection and positive affirmations. Remind them how amazing they are and encourage them to spend time with friends who make them feel good.
Don’t: Tell your child to “just ignore them”
Children have a natural urge to avoid conflict. This feeling is reinforced when they are told by adults to ignore it. The reality is children can’t ignore other children who are being mean on purpose.
If the other child who says the hurtful comments receives no consequences for their behaviour, their behaviour is implicitly reinforced. This makes them likely to engage in the same behaviour again.
The key to raising resilient, confident children who can face adversity with their head held high is to teach them to stand up for themselves.
Remind your child to surround themselves with people who treat them with respect, and help them to understand that when someone calls them a name, it says more about the name-caller than it does about them.