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Monthly Archives: August 2013

Is it Child Abuse to Let Your Child Become Obese?

A news article in Isle of Man Today newspaper dated 20th August bore this stop-you-in-your-tracks headline on childhood obesity:

 ‘Allowing your child to become obese is a form of child abuse’.

The article proceeded to quote the Chief Minister of the Isle of Man, Alan Bell as stating: ‘We need to wake up to the fact that this (obesity in children) is a very serious problem. Individuals must accept responsibility for safeguarding their own well-being’.

The article continued: ‘In the case of families it is the parents who should be held responsible for ensuring that their children eat properly and take enough exercise. Failure to do so could be described as a form of child neglect.

When you think that a parent caught slapping their child could be in court for child abuse. I don’t see why this should not equally be considered abusing their child’.

Strong words, but is the rhetoric correct?

shutterstock_21440572Clearly, if your child is overweight there are considerable risks to his or her health.  Existing research evidence concludes that there is no escaping this depressing fact. The truth is that eating the wrong food over time has a negative effect on health.

These risks to health are relevant during childhood and continue to be pertinent as the child develops into adulthood.  Physical illness, and indeed psychological dysfunction, are more likely to affect your child if they are obese.

That said, the majority of parents, from Dundee to Dungeness, would be absolutely horrified to learn that their children’s food may signal an earlier demise. They would also be shocked to learn that they may also be guilty of abuse.

Simplistic statements linking ‘obesity with abuse’ do not improve children’s diets; in fact, they continue to increase the schism within an already divided society.

In reality, the problem is far more deep-rooted and is entrenched with socio-economic and cultural influences.

Understanding Childhood Obesity

Children become obese for a variety of reasons.  In truth, deliberate and therefore abusive force-feeding of the wrong food is very rare (it is infrequently seen in Munchausen Syndrome).

Accessible public education is the key to improving the diets of our children, combined with affordable healthy food.

It isn’t surprising that the poorest in our community have the most nutrient-dilute diet: junk food is relatively cheap, is usually available as pound-stretching BOGOF deals, and ultimately fills a hole in even the hungriest child’s ever-rumbling stomach. Aside from basic fruit and vegetables, many trendy and mainstream health foods are expensive. Furthermore, cooking from scratch can be time-consuming and a source of anxiety for many parents.

Of course, parents who have limited resources will choose quantity over quality unless they are really clued up regarding the potential long-term damage to their children that is caused by a poor diet.

Just yesterday in a Twitter post, a well-known supermarket chain launched a survey for Tweeters to take part in: ‘Tell us your favourite product’, it said, with options including pancakes and several other forms of nutritionally dilute food. A better, but equally fun option, might have been ‘Tell us your favourite fruit and how you eat it’: fresh strawberries in a summer picnic, blackberries in autumn, frozen fruit as ice lollies, and so on.

In these times of austerity, where many parents are genuinely challenged to make ends meet, there needs to be more visible, yet simultaneously low-key promotion of healthier food – informing, but not lecturing. These health-promoting basics need to be available at a cheaper price.

An Obese Child is not an Abused Child

Linking obesity with the words ‘child abuse’ is extremely short-sighted and damaging. It insults the average parent and conversely dilutes the phrase ‘child abuse’ from its true meaning, i.e., the horrendous cruelty that child protection professionals work with on a daily basis. It also ignores the role that genetics can play in obesity (as discussed in this UCL study from March 2013).

The ‘child abuse’ label doesn’t reflect the complex interplay between food, culture, education and finance. It also has the potential to stigmatise low income families, who are often stereotyped as being more likely to face obesity. These stereotypes persist, despite some studies suggesting otherwise: a study in the International Journal of Obesity, found that middle-class children are more likely to be obese than children in other class brackets.

Of course, parents do have to take responsibility to provide healthy food for children, but they must be helped to do this, not demonised.

Unless sustained and engaging public education is possible, delivered via slick advertising and access to cheaper healthy food, the policy makers may have to reconsider where accountability for obesity truly resides.

Written by Dr Chrissie Tizzard, Chartered Consultant Psychologist, PsychD, BSc, MSc, C.Psychol, C.Sci, AFBPS. Dr Tizzard is the Clinical Director of Christine Tizzard Psychology (ctpsy.co.uk). She works with children and adults, offering treatment such as psychotherapy, CBT and family therapy. 

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