Recently, a Chicago father hurled an unusual legal weapon in a custody battle over his two kids: he accused his ex-wife of being a fast food mom. Claiming concern over his children’s weight and health, he blamed their mother for fostering an unhealthy lifestyle. She denied his claims, saying she only allows the occasional dessert and even enrolled them in physical activities after school. Wait, is this really about the kids?
Blaming an ex for a child’s weight problem has become an increasingly more common tactic in courts. But what is it doing for children?
“If you implicate a child in the middle of your fight there’s a good likelihood they’re going to feel responsible, guilty ashamed and embarrassed,” says Dr. Lawrence Balter, a psychologist and parenting expert.
Throw the tender issue of body image in and you’re playing with fire.
“One can assume it would hurt a child’s self esteem if they’re singled out as having some emotional or physical problem,” says Balter.
In several instances the “obesity” card is becoming a tactical legal approach as opposed to an actual concern over one or another person’s parenting skills, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.
“People can always find another thing to fight over,” June Carbone, a family law expert, told the Journal. “It can be endless.”
Even if a child is obese, and about 17 percent of Americans under 18 are, it isn’t necessarily the direct fault of either parent. Though divorce itself has been linked to childhood obesity, as Balter points out, many in tact families have overweight children. If a child has an eating disorder or an unhealthy relationship with food, taking that to court for a game of finger-pointing might might make the problem even worse.
“The very fact that the parents are fighting could in itself could create enough emotional upheaval in a kid that might lead him to seek comfort in overeating and create the problem,” says Balter.
In some extreme cases—a 400-pound 12-year old with diabetes was one recently well-documented example—the issue of weight is a factor in a bigger issue of abuse and neglect. But the more concerning cases are those that use a child’s body size to win a fight with an ex. Isn’t that a form of neglect and abuse too?