Can it be harmful for parents to talk to their child about their weight? A meta-analysis

Fiona B. Gillison*, Ava B. Lorenc, Ester F.C. Sleddens, Stefanie L. Williams, Lou Atkinson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Many parents express concern that raising the issue of weight risks harming their child's physical self-perceptions and wellbeing. Such concerns can deter families from engaging with weight management services. This systematic review aimed to investigate the evidence behind these concerns by analysing the association between parent-child weight-talk and child wellbeing. A systematic search of eight databases identified four intervention studies and 38 associative studies. Meta-analysis was only possible for the associative studies; to facilitate more meaningful comparisons, weight-talk was categorized into four communication types and effect size estimates for the association between these and wellbeing indicators were calculated through a random effects model. Encouraging children to lose weight and criticizing weight were associated with poorer physical self-perceptions and greater dieting and dysfunctional eating (effect sizes: 0.20 to 0.47). Conversely, parental encouragement of healthy lifestyles without explicit reference to weight was associated with better wellbeing, but this was only measured in two studies. Of the four intervention studies, only one isolated the effects of parents' communication on wellbeing outcomes, reporting a positive effect. There was no effect of age on the strength of associations, but dysfunctional eating was more strongly associated with parent communication for girls than boys. The findings indicate that some forms of parent-child weight-talk are associated with poor wellbeing, but suggest that this is not inevitable. Encouraging healthy behaviours without reference to weight-control, and positive parental involvement in acknowledging and addressing weight-concern may avoid such outcomes. More longitudinal research is needed to analyse the direction of these effects.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)135-146
Number of pages12
JournalPreventive Medicine
Early online date14 Oct 2016
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2016

Bibliographical note

© 2016, Elsevier. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International


  • Child wellbeing
  • Childhood obesity
  • Communication
  • Parenting
  • Weight-talk


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