Perceptions vs. Reality: Is Your “Healthy” Child Actually Obese?

by Alyssa Lundahl

After stepping on the stray Lego that wasn’t put away for the millionth time and scrubbing off a crayon masterpiece on the newly painted white walls – one might think that parents’ Pollyannaish view of their children would start to fade. However, despite the daily struggles and hassles, parents continue tend to see their children in the most positive light. In fact, most parents believe that their child is “perfect” – they are gifted, could never be the bully, and – as a study that I recently published in Pediatrics indicates – are of a normal, healthy weight.

In fact, 50.7% of parents of overweight/obese children think that there child is a healthy weight. This misperception is even greater for younger children and sons. Parents tend to believe that their younger children will grow out of their excess weight and that any extra weight they have is just “baby fat.” However, excess weight in 2- to 5-year-olds tends to stick around until adolescence, and being overweight as a teen is highly predictive of adult obesity. In addition, parents of boys are less likely to think that their heavier sons are an unhealthy weight. This is likely due to the expectation that boys should be big, strong and muscular. Thus, if they are normal weight, they may be perceived as too small –maybe even “wimpy.”

Why are parents so oblivious of their children’s excess weight? Though my study did not address this question directly, there are a number of possible explanations. First, given the increase in childhood obesity in the past three decades, childhood obesity has almost become the norm. As such, parents assume that the average child is overweight, and thus, when asked if their overweight child is “normal,” they respond “yes.” Second, the media portrays overweight children as those that are severely obese, which may skew parents’ understanding of what actually qualifies as overweight. Lastly, parents may be resistant to labeling or stigmatizing their child as overweight.

Parental misperceptions of their child’s overweight status and associated lack of concern may not only prevent parents from performing actions to address their children’s weight, but may also influence overweight children to regard their weight status as normal and further engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as eating junk food, racking up the screen-time hours, and not engaging in physical activity. However, parents who believe their children are struggling with weight may be more likely to model healthy behaviors and seek out resources to address their child’s weight.

Talk with your pediatrician about your child’s weight. Engage them in a discussion about general guidelines regarding diet and physical activity and ask them to provide you with your child’s BMI measurements at each visit.


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