You’ve been noticing unhealthy changes in your teen’s weight and you want to have a heart-to-heart about it. But talking to teenagers is tricky. How can you be sure they’ll hear what you say?
Rest assured: They really are listening to you, says Sara Forman, MD, clinical chief of adolescent medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital. “They may not acknowledge it, but they hear the message.”
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
There’s no one-size-fits-all method for tackling weight issues with teens. Your job is to start the conversation, and keep the lines of communication open with your kid.
And sooner is better than later.
“The more you avoid something, the more taboo it becomes,” says Dyan Hes, MD, medical director of Gramercy Pediatrics in New York City. “The issue can't stay in the shadows. You have to talk about it.”
Conversations go more smoothly when you plan out what you’ll say before you say it, says Michaela M. Bucchianeri, PhD, visiting assistant professor of psychology at Gustavus Adolphus College. She’s studied parent conversations on healthful eating and weight.
Talk somewhere neutral, she suggests. Avoid places like the dinner table. And never bring it up in front of other people.
“Specific statements about what you have noticed work best,” Bucchianeri says. “Try to avoid general statements that might trigger defensiveness in your child.”
Think Outside the Scale
Your focus -- and your teen’s -- should be on their overall health, not body size, Forman says. “Talk about healthful eating, and how to balance that with exercise, sleep, and mental health hygiene,” she says. “Those are all key pieces to a healthy lifestyle.”
In fact, a well-meaning conversation that’s just about weight or clothing size can backfire, Bucchianeri says. “Research strongly suggests that parents’ comments that encourage dieting or convey pressure to lose weight are associated with feelings of shame and body dissatisfaction in the child,” she says.
When you focus on health over pounds, your teen is more likely to make good food choices and be physically active.