In my day job, I have been working on an interesting project that has presented a complicated problem: how to “market” a clinical study for an investigational medication for type 2 diabetes. That’s not the tricky part. The real challenge is that the study is for pediatric patients, and talking to parents about the fact that their child is overweight is…well, it’s hard.
I’ve written a lot about childhood obesity in my career as a health communicator, but I have never before been called on to write about what is becoming a dangerous trend: increasing rates of type 2 diabetes among overweight and obese children and teenagers. What I quickly learned is that parents are often very uncomfortable with the topic of overweight and obesity and often avoid the subject—something that could have damaging repercussion for the health of the child. In fact, some studies have shown that parents are now more reluctant to have “the talk” about being overweight than they are to have the talk about sex and drugs, with nearly 1 in 4 parents uncomfortable with the topic.
This is also a dilemma for health care providers. How do you strike the right balance between direct and helpful and insensitive and disrespectful? Concerns over hurt feelings and body image often stop us short of brutal honesty: we’d never say “your kid is fat.” But is sugar coating (no pun intended) the message doing more harm than good?
A few years ago, a campaign in Georgia drew attention both positive and negative for ads where children described themselves as fat. The campaign, called Stop Childhood Obesity, was launched by a group called Strong4Life. Controversial, perhaps, but the group, which was formed by Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, felt that the state’s nearly 1 million overweight and obese children needed a dramatic message.
Recognizing how uncomfortable parents and providers are about discussing this topic, Strong4life has put together a great set of questions for parents to ask their child’s doctor to open up communication and get the conversation started:
- How does my child’s weight relate to his or her risk for illness or disease?
- If our entire family is overweight, will my child be overweight? Is there anything I can do?
- Should I be concerned if my child is overweight? Will he or she grow out of it?
- How can I help my child maintain a healthy weight as he or she grows?
- How can I get my child to eat healthy?
- What can I do to encourage my child to be more physically active?
And providers, when talking to parents (and especially when talking to children and teenagers), the words you choose are critically important.
Here are some language considerations:
- Obesity use overweight
- Ideal weight use healthier weight
- Personal improvement use family improvement
- Focus on weight use focus on lifestyle
- Diets or bad foods use healthier food choices
- Exercise use physical activity
There’s no doubt that this is a difficult conversation, but there’s also no doubt that it’s a necessary one. When faced with parents in denial about this important health risk, the way you approach the conversation and the words you use can truly make the difference.