Sometimes it can be hard to talk to teenagers about pretty much anything. But when you notice that your teen might be at an unhealthy weight, should you sit down and have a serious talk -- like you did about sex?
It's all about the delivery, say parenting and nutrition experts.
The Talk: Expert Advice For Every Age
Do you have kids that are different ages or one that’s being bullied at school? See how your approach might need to be different for each one.
Dos and Don'ts for Talking to Teens about Weight
- Have ongoing conversations about making healthy choices
- Explain tools to help make healthy choices (portion sizes, nutrition labels, exercise guidelines)
- Talk to your teen's pediatrician about weight worries
- Focus on what's inside your teen, not on the outside
- Talk about "weight" or "dieting"
- Make foods "bad" or off-limits, but do encourage healthy portions
- Reward weight loss. Instead, offer support and compliments for healthy choices.
- Make healthy rules for only 1 child -- include the whole family
- Be critical when your child doesn't make perfect choices
- Tolerate weight-based bullying or teasing
Look for opportunities to talk about your teen's health, but do it in small doses, not one big serious discussion, says Don Morgan, PhD, director of the Center for Physical Activity and Health in Youth at Middle Tennessee State University. "Have a good open dialogue with your child about the importance of activity and healthy eating," he says.
Talk to them when you're making dinner, packing school lunches, or ordering at restaurants. Talk about healthy choices when you're making plans for the weekend -- like whether to go hiking or see a movie.
Although you shouldn't focus on how much your teen weighs, you also shouldn't ignore it if your teen has a weight issue, says Morgan. "It's better to acknowledge it rather than ignore it or that might lead to the child looking for unhealthy ways to lose weight."
Body Image Issues
Some parents are afraid to go anywhere near the issue of weight with their teenage children because they're worried about causing body image issues or making them worse. They're afraid that if they mention healthier eating or getting more exercise, that a teenager will translate that into: "Mom thinks I'm fat."
"There's a fear that if you say one wrong thing or make one false step that you're going to trigger an eating disorder -- and that's just not true," says Marlene Schwartz, PhD, deputy director of the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, who has treated eating disorders for more than a decade.
Eating disorders, Schwartz points out, are serious psychiatric illnesses that are usually activated by a combination of issues. "Parents need to give themselves a break. It's not like you can easily say something that will send (a teenager) down this path."
Some traits that together may contribute to an eating disorder include perfectionism, a history of childhood anxiety disorders such as panic attacks or OCD, a negative body image, and a family history of eating disorders, says psychologist Jennifer Thomas, PhD, assistant director of the Eating Disorders Clinical and Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital.
(Find out what signs to watch for if you suspect an eating disorder.)
In general, there's no evidence that encouraging people to get to a healthy weight results in any type of psychological harm, says Robert Jeffery, PhD, director of the University of Minnesota Obesity Prevention Center.
It's always beneficial to talk to your kids about healthy weight, he says. "It's like talking to your kid about safety helmets or not drinking when they drive. It's a fact of life. We're all at high risk of being overweight and they ought to know what causes it."