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What to say -- and what NOT to say -- when talking to kids about weight

Worried about whether talking to your kids about weight will hurt his or her feelings, or somehow increase their chances of developing an eating disorder?

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Explain to kids that exercise can be play -- make it fun by going to a park or playground.

Guess what, you’re not alone!  In fact, a new national study conducted by WebMD  and Sanford Health reports that parents find it more difficult to talk to kids—especially teens—about weight, than about sex, alcohol, cigarettes or drugs.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. These do's and don'ts can help turn a tough conversation into a positive experience for both you and your child.

1. DO talk about living a healthier lifestyle. Explain that making healthier eating choices will fuel your child’s body for school and fun and that getting physical activity and enough sleep will energize him.

DON’T talk about losing weight or dieting. Placing the focus on weight loss or diets can contribute to eating-disordered thoughts and behaviors. In addition, kids need a wide range of foods to be healthy, but diets don’t provide this; balanced choices do. Don’t make any forbidden, as there is a place for all foods in a healthy lifestyle.

2. DO make it a family affair. Tell your child that everyone in the family will work together to live a healthier lifestyle and encourage him or her to learn about healthy habits on their own and in a fun way by visiting www.fit.webmd.com.

DON’T single out one child. It will be too difficult for a child to make healthy changes if she is the only one eating healthy and exercising.

3. DO talk to your child about making sure he gets enough sleep and has adequate time to relax. When kids are sleep deprived or stressed, it is difficult for them to keep a healthy weight  

DON’T pack your child’s schedule so full of activity that there is no time for unstructured play. All kids need downtime to play actively and creatively. Having the opportunity to do so will help your child relax and unwind in order to get a good night’s sleep.

4. DO make exercise fun. Explain that exercise can be play – like bike riding and playing in the park. When your child realizes this, she will be happy about moving her body.

DON’T tell your child that he must exercise every day. Instead, tell him that you will begin to plan fun ‘moving’ activities so the whole family can get healthier together.

5. DO tell your child that you love her inside and out. Reinforce that you are proud of her and tell her that, even if it takes a while to become successful at making healthier choices, you will support her as she tries.

DON’T tell your child she is ‘fat’ or ‘overweight’. Also, resist the urge to ask her to ‘try harder’ or ‘work at it more’ – or similar phrases. Your child will hear only the negatives. It is tough to become healthier, so your child needs as much support and positive feedback as possible.

For more tips and advice, including how to speak to kids of specific ages – and what to do if you suspect your child is being bullied about his or her weight – please visit www.webmd.com/raisingfitkids

Psychologist Susan Bartell, PsyD, an expert in child and parenting, author of Dr. Susan's Fit and Fun Family Action Plan and contributor to WebMD.com.

Though it may be hard to talk to your children about challenging issues, contributing psychologist at WebMD.com Susan Bartell and the Family Circle magazine's Linda Fears stress the importance of discussing weight.