From the beginning of the pandemic, parents everywhere were concerned about how to keep our kids of all ages physically active while stuck at home. Just like that, their team sports, gym class, recess, playdates, and walks to and from school were all snatched away. Maybe we tried to get them out of the house for fairly regular walks or bike rides, but it was challenging to consistently match their pre-COVID activities when the weather—or their mood—wouldn’t always cooperate.
Childhood obesity was already a problem in the United States long before the pandemic hit. So it makes sense that parents may have found themselves concerned over the past year about how their kids’ lower activity levels—as well as healthy eating habits that may have suffered due to stress or time constraints in the home—would affect their physical health.
But as Virginia Sole-Smith writes for the New York Times, we don’t have much actual data to go on yet; any weight gain our kids have experienced should be treated not with worry but with curiosity:
“One of the challenges in even collecting that data is that a lot of health care visits are now virtual, so weights aren’t taken,” said Dr. Richard E. Besser, president and chief executive of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which releases an annual “State of Childhood Obesity” report. “But there’s a lot of concern about children’s weight going up in the pandemic. And it makes a lot of sense that this is something that’s going to happen.”
The lack of overall data hasn’t stopped many parents from worrying or wondering whether they should intervene if their child gains weight during the pandemic. But if you think that your child’s body is bigger than it might otherwise be right now, it’s important to view that change as something to be curious about, rather than as a problem to solve, the physicians and nutritionists I spoke with said.
If you’ve noticed significant changes to your child’s body in the past year, remember that it may not be pandemic-related at all. Kids bodies, particularly during puberty, experience major changes. Plus, not all kids develop at the same rate or on the same timeline as their peers, as the Nemours Foundation points out:
These changes continue for several years. The average kid can expect to grow as much as 10 inches (25 centimeters) during puberty before reaching full adult height.
Because some kids start developing as early as age 8 and some not until age 14, it can be normal for two kids who are the same gender and age to have very different weights.
Regardless of whether a more sedentary pandemic lifestyle is at play in a child’s weight gain or body changes, how we react to those changes now is critical. Shaming them, vocalizing concern about their weight, or trying to control what they eat—either by insisting they clean their plate or by cutting them off—should always be avoided, as they tend to backfire and cause kids to have long-lasting unhealthy relationships with food or body image.
Focus on health—for the whole family
If your kid’s healthy habits have taken a hit during the past year, chances are that’s true for others in your family or among their peer group. Most of us could stand to eat less processed food, incorporate more fruits and vegetables into our meals, and move our bodies with higher frequency. Make those goals family goals, because they’re key to the emotional, physical, and mental health for all of us.
Pick some active, outdoor activities you all enjoy doing together—or create some family dance routines for TikTok. Go grocery shopping together and invite them to cook dinner with you. Take a moment to check in and see how they’re doing and whether they need any support with struggles in school or in their relationships.
Talk to their pediatrician
If you’re still concerned about your child’s health and need some additional tips for implementing a healthier diet or increasing physical activity, talk to their doctor about it. Just be careful about how you frame these conversations, especially if your child is with you for the discussion. Talk about healthy choices, the importance of movement for physical and mental health, and strong bodies—not the need for them (or anyone else) to “go on a diet” or lose weight.
And finally, if the concern about weight is coming straight from them, rather than from you, here are some tips for how to talk to them about it—or seek help, if necessary.