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Denial Among Parents of Overweight Children

June 14, 2010

Full-Figured Man

by Meredee Lloyd

A recent poll conducted in Minnesota found that most adults there are in denial about their true weight status. They also tend to overlook overweight and obesity in their own children. In fact, some parents in this poll were concerned about their kids being underweight when in actuality they were within the normal weight range.

While 23 percent of Minnesota’s children are considered overweight or obese based on a 2009 report from the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, analysis of the Minnesota poll [the link is PDF] found only 16 percent of parents with one or more children expressed concern regarding the weight of their child or children. Among parents of three or more children, only 6 percent expressed concern.

This poll does not seem to be an outlier, as past surveys and research have found similar results with other parents. A survey conducted in 2007 by Dr. Matthew M. Davis, a University of Michigan professor of pediatrics and internal medicine, even found that within the group of adults who had obese children, 43 percent still had classified their children as “just the right weight,” and yet another 13 percent of the parents had classified them as “slightly underweight”! An article in the February issue of the journal Acta Paediatrica showed that parents in the Netherlands likewise under-acknowledged the true extent of overweight and obesity among their children.

Upon reflection, parents ignoring the true reality of their child or children’s weight status is only human nature. Denial, or not admitting the true scope of a problem, is a coping mechanism used by people of all ages, although parental denial is the focus of this post.

Dr. Robert Pretlow found evidence of parental denial through his Weigh2Rock bulletin boards. On the Parents’ Bulletin Board of Weigh2Rock, a parent recently wrote:

I didn’t see my son was fat for a very long time. I’m a single mom and I work a lot, he was never teased in school about his weight and he never said anything about it either. We were going on a vacation a few weeks ago and when we got to the desk to check-in at the airport, the lady there drew me aside and pointed out that I would have to purchase an extra seat for Andrew, my son, because he was not going to fit on one. I argued it and argued it but she wouldn’t give in and I gave up and bought an extra one for him.

He was absolutely mortified on the plane when he couldn’t get into a single seat. I had never seen him so visibly upset as in that moment. It ruined the rest of the holiday for him. Normally he’s the first one in the pool, shirt off enjoying himself but he just sat wearing a t-shirt on the pool side and refused to go in.

Since we’ve got back I’ve noticed he’s been eating more but I really don’t know how to broach the issue of his weight and get him on the scales. I’m worried for his health as he really is quite a big boy. Please, I need help for him before it’s too late.

After being in denial about her son’s obesity, the mother quoted above had encountered a situation where the reality of her son’s weight status could no longer be ignored. Compounding the problem, her son may now be eating even more to cope with the stress or depression of realizing that he is obese. By acknowledging the problem, the mother now appears to be concerned about her son’s health.

In his book Overweight: What Kids Say, Dr. Robert Pretlow identifies that this kind of “turning point” may help reverse the childhood obesity epidemic:

Personal health risks appear to be not as motivating to adults as risks to the health of their children, although studies have shown that many parents of overweight kids are in denial that their kids are overweight. Health risks from obesity in children may prove to be the catalyst which reverses the adult obesity epidemic and its effects on children.

The realization that kids will live shorter lives than their parents is a wakeup call that we must do something about the reasons for obesity in adults, which are very likely the same as in kids, i.e. addictive comfort eating and stress eating, and which result in availability of highly pleasurable (addictive) foods to kids.

A problem must be acknowledged before it is addressed. Solving the childhood overweight and obesity problem is not exempt from this process. There are multiple reasons why parents may be hesitant to admit that their child is overweight or obese. These reasons include the fear that admission of a child’s weight problem results in social stigma, a belief that their kids will grow out of being fat, sidestepping the problem of overweight and obesity within parents themselves, and avoiding making life style changes and managing mental health issues at home.

Sooner or later a child’s overweight or obesity problem must be acknowledged and addressed. Denial can help us avoid issues for a while, until reality abruptly slaps us in the face.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Minnesotans are in denial about their weight, poll finds,”, 05/25/10
Source: “New Report Finds Minnesota Has 31st Highest Percent of Obese Adults and Least Obese and Overweight Children in the U.S.,” Healthy Americans, 07/01/09
Source: “The Shape of Minnesota,” Pollsters Analysis (PDF), 2009
Source: “Many parents of fat kids in denial, study finds,” MSNBC Health, 12/24/07
Source: “Parents Don’t Think Their Overweight Kids Are Fat,” That’s Fit, 02/01/10
Source: “Overweight: What Kids Say,”
Image by Tobeyotter, used under its Creative Commons license.


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