Are you concerned about your teen’s weight? Are you hitting a brick wall when attempting to discuss weight, fitness and health issues with your son or daughter? You’re not alone. Many parents report weight as a particularly tough, and often emotional, subject to discuss with teens. So we’ve asked the experts for tips on broaching this important topic with your child.
Respect your child’s weight
Teenagers are certainly not alone in their less-than-desirable reactions to the weight issue, said Steven Crawford, M.D., associate medical director of The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt in Baltimore.
“Consider how you, even as an adult, might react if someone—maybe even your own child—commented on your recent weight gain or pointed out that your exercise and eating habits were really unhealthy,” said Crawford.
It’s a sensitive topic for a lot of reasons, but more and more because of the intensity with which our culture, and the media, has placed a focus on weight and connected it to individual self-worth and social status, he said.
“These are, developmentally, very sensitive topics for teens, some resistance is to be expected,” he said.
Weight is often a tricky subject for moms and daughters, especially, because moms tend to bring their “body baggage” to the conversation, said Dara Chadwick, a journalist and author of You’d Be So
Pretty If… Teaching Our Daughters to Love Their Bodies—Even When We Don’t Love Our Own (2009; Da Capo Lifelong Books). “For example, if mom was heavy as a child and found that to be a painful experience, she may want to ‘spare’ her daughter from going through what she went through and may take a heavy-handed or critical approach to talking with her daughter about weight or eating,” Chadwick said.
“Or, if mom works very hard to stay slim, she may feel that an overweight daughter is somehow a reflection on her as a mother,” Chadwick said. “Daughters tend to shut down when they feel they’re being lectured, or when it’s a ‘do I as I say, not as I do’ situation. In other words, mom or dad tells the daughter to go out and play, or get some exercise, from his or her perch on the couch.”
“Stay alert for natural opportunities to discuss healthy living,” Chadwick said. “While you’re in the kitchen together preparing dinner, while you’re taking a walk after dinner, while you’re watching a television show that makes fun of weight or features an actor who’s incredibly thin. Using moments like this helps take the focus off the daughter herself. Instead, it’s a more global discussion, which tends to feel safer.”
Watch the humor. “I’ll admit I’ve made jokes about my size in the past. But those jokes can hurt just as much as criticism,” Chadwick said. “Don’t make your butt the ‘butt’ of every joke. And think twice before joking about your teen’s body or appearance in any way.”
Teens are notoriously sensitive and an off-hand joke about clothes, hair or weight can sting more than adults may realize.
“Never yell, bribe, threaten or punish your child about weight, food or physical activity. If you turn these issues into parent-child battlegrounds, the results can be disastrous,” said Dayle Hayes, MS, RD, a registered dietitian in Billings, MT. “Shame, blame and anger are set-ups for failure. The worse children feel about weight, the more likely they are to overeat or develop an eating disorder.”
Focus on a healthy lifestyle, not weight
“Make sure you set a good example for health, balanced eating and body image,” said Crawford. “This means not ‘dieting,’ fitting in family meals whenever possible, no excessive exercising and no criticism of your own or other people’s bodies.”
If you don’t want your children to shut down when the topic comes up, let go of a focus on the weight, and focus on general health, he said.
Instead of saying, “I’m concerned because you have lost so much weight over the past month,” say “I’m really worried about you because it seems like you don’t have as much energy lately. Are you feeling OK?” Likewise, instead of saying, “You seem to be gaining weight. You’d better start watching what you’re eating,” it might be better to say “I know you’ve been grabbing a lot of meals on the run lately. Let’s try to make some more time to have family meals together.” Then follow through by planning and preparing meals.
“Keep in mind that everything in moderation—as opposed to completely banning fast food or desserts—is the key to balanced eating,” Crawford said.
The importance of breakfast
“It is vital for teens to have breakfast,” said Joan O’Keefe, RD, a frequent speaker on nutrition at schools and the creator of the “Nutrition 101” video series.
“Their biological clocks say ‘sleep in,’ but the reality is that they have to get up and they have to have breakfast and it must include protein.”
Protein in the morning will keep children satisfied and will help eliminate junk-food cravings, O’Keefe said.
“Protein sources can be fast,” she adds. “Leftover protein from dinner (chicken breast, etc.), yogurt with berries, peanut butter and an apple or whey protein (mix it and go out the door with it) are all quick-and-easy options.”
Are adults in your child’s life sending the right message?
“As with any other important issue, make sure that both parents and important relatives are all on the same page,” Hayes said. “Sending mixed messages about weight can also have unhealthy consequences.”
If you’re concerned about other family members having potentially negative discussions with your teen about weight, you may want to share this article with them and talk about the approach you want to use.
Puberty related weight changes
Teens naturally go through a normal and necessary weight gain at the start of puberty, which allows their body to proceed with maturation, Crawford said. With time, their weight will level off at the body’s unique set point with normal eating behavior. Parents who draw negative attention to this period of weight gain could trigger body-image concerns and unhealthy dieting behavior.
Has your daughter started her period yet? Would you have expected her to have started earlier? There may be a possibility that low body weight has delayed the onset of menstruation. If she did start menstruating, is she still getting her period, or has it stopped or been irregular? If you have concerns about this, talk with your daughter’s doctor.
Take advantage of your teen’s web interest
Introduce your teen to websites that focus on teen health, such as www.empowermetobe.org,www.nflrush.com/play60, www.kidshealth.org, www.americanheart.org and www.diabetes.org,” ” suggests Paragi Mehta, RD, Mehta. “This is not to scare your teen, but to create an awareness that if we get healthy now, we can reduce our risk of having lifelong disease or health conditions.”
While these sites offer positive examples for teens, the same can’t be said of all media, of course. “Remind them that models in advertisements have often been Photoshopped and retouched.”
Don’t focus on dieting
“Diets can further complicate an already stressful relationship with food and could trigger continued problems with eating for your child,” Crawford said. “Diets are the No.1 risk factor for developing eating disorders. The goal would be to work toward normalizing eating behavior, ensuring that they are getting most or all of the necessary nutrients they need in a day, and getting in touch with the body’s natural hunger and fullness cues.”
“Always keep the focus on health, rather than weight,” Hayes said. “Losing weight is incredibly difficult and it is not the only measure of success. If your family starts eating better and moving more, your children may ‘grow into their weight’ as their height increases.”
“Try to make healthy food choices whenever possible, such as a baked sweet potato instead of fries, water instead of soda, etc.,” Chadwick said. “But don’t point out your choice or make a big deal out of how you’re choosing the healthy version. Kids will tune that out quickly.”
Remember to show that all foods can be enjoyed in moderation. “Show kids that everything—pizza, cheeseburgers, hot fudge sundaes—has a place in a balanced approach to healthy living. When you choose to have a treat, let your child see you enjoy it. Proclaim it ‘treat night,’ and don’t say one word about how it’s going to your thighs or how you shouldn’t be eating it. Just enjoy.”
Be the family that plays together
Getting your teen involved in meal planning, grocery shopping and physical activities can be a big help, and you can do it without a lot of talking about “the problem.”
Take the challenge and join a health club together or do dance/exercise DVDs together. This can help with bonding and is a win-win situation. “You get to spend quality time together, get exercise together, and show how you really care about your health and your family’s health.”