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Doctors and parents need to watch language around children with obesity

Nov 21, 2017

Credit UR Medicine Golisano Children's Hospital

A pediatrician at UR Medicine’s Golisano Children’s Hospital co-authored guidelines to encourage medical professionals to use non-biased language when treating teens and children with obesity.

Dr. Steve Cook helped pen the new policy statement that was published in the December 2017 issue of Pediatrics, and it suggests that health professionals model non-biased behaviors and language in order to reduce the weight stigma that children and teens usually encounter. The policy statement was jointly released by The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and The Obesity Society. AAP says weight stigma among youth is most experienced as victimization, teasing, and bullying, and 71 percent of high school students who were seeking weight loss treatment say they were bullied about their weight in the past year. Some of the bullying can come from home.

“The behavioral factors they exhibit against their child where they may be making statements against their child or even saying something like ‘don’t be like your uncle,’ ‘don’t develop like this,' … that is supposed to be the person that is most supportive, a parent,” said Dr. Cook.  “When a parent unconsciously is doing this, or thinking they’re doing this in a way to motivate, it’s very detrimental.”

“This issue needs to be on the radar for pediatric health professionals, who may be among the few allies who can offer support and help prevent youth from further harm and experiences,” said co-author Rebecca Puhl, Ph.D., deputy director for the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity and fellow with The Obesity Society.

AAP recommends using “people first” language, such as “children with obesity” instead of “obese child.” They also encourage patients to address and medical professionals to address weight stigma bullying.

“Treating children and teens who have obesity means more than just changing nutrition and physical activity habits,” said Dr. Stephen J. Pont, a lead author of the policy. “It’s also about addressing the social and emotional impact that excess weight can have on their quality of life. Though these new recommendations, we hope to encourage more effective and empathetic approaches in how we address and care for children and families with obesity."