School’s out for summer! Or if it’s not quite out yet in your neck of the woods, it will be soon. While the prospect of summer camp is all fun and games for kids, the pre-camp To Do list for parents is seemingly endless. Put name tags in clothing. Buy stamps and address postcards. Buy sunscreen. Pack up the trunk.
If your child has experienced eating- or weight-related problems this past year – picky eating, teasing about body size, dieting, poor body image, or significant changes in weight – then your list likely needs a few additional items. [And don’t worry: every parent’s list has a few additional items for their kid!]
We asked Drs. Marian Tanofsky-Kraff and Natasha Schvey, clinical psychologists and researchers in childhood obesity, child and adolescent eating disorders, and weight stigma at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, to help us help you with some tips to ensure that your kids have a summer to remember for all the right reasons.
As you are creating your To Do list, Dr. Tanofsky-Kraff encourages parents to add something important to the top: an open discussion with children about eating guidelines that will serve their particular health needs. “No matter you child’s weight status, encourage him or her to eat a variety of foods and to eat on a regular basis, as the camp schedule likely encourages. For an overweight child, you can emphasize that some foods can be eaten with few limits, while others are ‘sometimes’ foods to be eaten in moderation.”
The needs of a child working to gain weight or to broaden their dietary horizons may be slightly different; a pre-camp discussion might include identifying what challenging foods they would like to try a few times this summer so that once the summer is underway, you can talk about how it’s going.
The other crucial item for the To Do list, according to Dr. Tanofsky-Kraff, is to establish a good connection with the camp director, counselor, and/or camp medical staff depending on your child’s needs. “Let the camp staff know what your concerns are, what your child’s concerns are, and – if applicable – what your child’s treatment provider’s concerns and goals are.”
Topics to address with the camp might include:
- Eating goals (e.g., not skipping meals, trying new foods)
- Manifestations of poor body image (e.g., over- or under- participation in physical activities, avoidance of or discomfort in a bathing suit, negative comments about one’s own body, changing clothes excessively)
- Weight-related teasing, including strategies your child finds helpful if such teasing occurs
Teasing about weight shares a lot in common with other forms of bullying, according to Dr. Schvey. “Depending on the camp, they might be amenable to including some programming on bullying for campers and staff at the camp’s outset. The goal of this would be to make it clear to everyone that bullying in any form – verbal, relational, physical – is not tolerated at camp.”
Of course, kids still need to know what to do if they experience teasing or witness it. “Essentially, you want to encourage your child to clearly tell the bully to stop the behavior, walk away, and to inform a grown-up – ideally, staff member – about the incident,” Dr. Schvey advises. “And retaliation should obviously be discouraged.”
Older campers may confront disparaging body, weight, or food talk amongst peers that may not be specifically aimed at them, but may be harmful nonetheless. If the school year provided any examples of how this can be successfully navigated – namely, how your child can fight fat talk – be sure to discuss it before they head off for the summer.
Identifying positive coping techniques for difficult moments is the third item to include on your camp To Do list. Difficult moments for campers extend beyond the possibility of weight-related teasing to homesickness and disagreements with friends.
Positive coping strategies, to be personalized for your child with your help, include:
- Talking with a close friend
- Doing something fun
- Doing something distracting
- Doing something relaxing
- Talking with a counselor
- Writing about it in a journal
- Writing a letter home
As summer gets underway, all this prep is bound to serve you and your child well and, we hope, to help your family have some fun in the sun.
- Basic facts about bullies and victims.
- Is my child a target of weight stigma?
- How parents can combat weight bias.