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Loneliness: what parents should worry about instead of their kids’ weight

loneliness is a serious health risk in kids

So many parents feel they can and must strive to control their kids’ bodies. This impulse comes from the best place. From everything we have been told, our kids will live longer, healthier lives if we teach them to keep their body weight low.

But here’s the thing: controlling our bodies is actually harder than we have been lead to believe. In 95% of cases, a person who diets regains their lost weight plus more. In the process of losing weight, our metabolic rates permanently slow down, and we increase our cortisol (stress hormone).

None of those are the results we are going for when we gently suggest ways for our children to reduce their food intake and make comments about watching their weight. Worse, when we tell our children to restrict food and watch their weight, we are laying the foundation for disordered eating. If our kids have developed an eating disorder, we absolutely must change how we think about weight in order to support our kids’ recovery from an eating disorder.

Eating disorders are much, much deeper than weight. But weight bias is the most superficial behavior that we must address in order to ever get deep enough to recover.

But parents are going to worry about something

The good thing is that, unless our children are medically underweight (in which case they need medical attention), there are much better things for us to worry about instead of our kids’ weight. In a popular TED Talk, Susan Pinker combined meta-data on longevity to create a great view of what actually impacts our likelihood of death.

The good news: weight is surprisingly low on the list of factors. 

The largest factor leading reduced mortality, according to research, is social connections. The primary study, which was conducted in a series of studies of tens of thousands of middle-aged people, collected data about every aspect of lifestyle, including diet, exercise, and behavioral patterns, and then evaluated how many people were still alive seven years later.

This study found that close interpersonal relationships and robust social integration are the strongest factors correlated with reduced mortality.  They have more than 3x the impact of body weight.


What to worry about instead of weight

If you’re looking for something to worry about in your kids, then here are five things you can worry about instead of their weight:

1. Family Integration:

Our first social group is our family. How strong are your family ties? Does your child feel integrated and as if he or she “belongs” to your family? Do you take time to build family stories and narratives that help your kids see their place in the family? Do you spend time building family integration every single day? Family integration is a cornerstone of social health, so parents should spend the majority of their “worry” time optimizing family integration.

2. Social Skills

Have you observed your child struggling to make and keep friendships? Does your child have at least one close friend whom they can call when they are feeling lonely? Does your child have at least one person whom they genuinely like with whom they can sit at lunch? These are critical factors in ensuring our children’s’ long-term health. Help your child explore the meaning of friendship, and support their social skills development.

3. Informal Social Groups

If your child is a part of a social group at school, do you know the members of the group? Parents should know the names of their children’s inner circle of friends, and allow space for their children to talk about their inner circle openly and honestly. Parents can help children reflect on their friends’ choices and behaviors, and help them navigate sticky social situations.

4. Formal Social Groups

Almost all research points towards the benefit of belonging to larger social networks. Often these networks or groups are purpose-driven. They can be sports teams, spiritual groups, musical groups, volunteer groups, or just about any other group that meets regularly and works towards similar goals. Help your child find a passion-based group based on his or her interests and skills.

5. Loneliness

Overall, you want to understand your child’s loneliness factor. Loneliness has been correlated with mental disorders including eating disorders, physical disease, and death. Loneliness is also correlated with the No. 2 and No. 3 mortality factors: tobacco and alcohol addiction. If possible, ask your child to complete this teen loneliness quiz, or try to complete it on his or her behalf. If your child is lonely, then work with a professional to help your child find a way to build social connections and be less lonely in life.

Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.

She’s the founder of and a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.

Research links

Social relationships and mortality risk: A meta-analytic review, Holt-Lunstad, Julianne, Smith, Timothy R., and Layton, Bradley J, PLOS Medicine, 2010

Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2015.

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