One size does not fit all for helping parents of children with obesity

UAlberta study identifies what motivates families to make healthy lifestyle changes.


Getting parents motivated to help kids lose weight requires a variety of weight management strategies, including access to an interdisciplinary team of clinicians, according to a new University of Alberta study.

“Families seek out weight management support from health-care practitioners for a variety of reasons, and their priorities need to be considered when tailoring treatment plans,” said Maryam Kebbe, a UAlberta PhD Student in the Department of Pediatrics and the study’s lead author.

The study examined how a clinical tool called Conversation Cards (CCs) helped 146 families identify a range of priorities and challenges in weight management.

CCs were created in 2012 by Geoff Ball, a professor of pediatrics and director of the Pediatric Centre for Weight and Health at Stollery Children’s Hospital and a former graduate student in pediatrics. The cards enable priority setting to change lifestyle habits among children and families enrolled in pediatric weight management. They also encourage conversations and allow health-care practitioners to personalize counseling and treatment for families.

“We found a number of common themes across families,” said Ball, a study co-author. Namely, one of the cards indicating a readiness to make health changes was selected by half of the families.

“While that’s a positive sign, it also means that the other half of families might not be ready. We can’t assume that all families who attend appointments for weight management are ready, willing and able to make healthy changes,” said Ball.

There are a range of issues that families experience in weight management, including their capacity and ability to make healthy changes.

“The CCs give health-care practitioners a tool to break the ice on a topic that can be difficult to talk about. Weight is a sensitive issue for families, so the cards serve an important role to direct conversations to be about a variety of practical challenges families encounter.”

Setting goals

Study participants with a higher level of education and lower household income reported that goal setting helped them to remain motivated.

“Goal setting is a very useful, practical activity that can help families make healthy lifestyle changes, especially teens,” said Kebbe.

As an example, the study showed that teens lean more towards independence, which is likely to impact their weight. More specifically, the cards about tending to buy more processed foods when parents were not around and not enjoying physical activity were chosen more for teens than they were for children.

“Knowing this about teens, that they want to be independent, we should explore ways to help them establish healthy habits, like using goal setting, while maintaining their autonomy,” said Kebbe.

Kebbe is currently researching the priorities that teens place on weight management to determine how best to communicate and encourage healthy lifestyle behaviours to that age group.