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.”
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.
Be the Change You Wish to See
If you talk the talk, make sure you’re also walking the walk.
“One of the best ways parents can help set their children up for healthy habits is to model those same habits themselves,” Bucchianeri says. Clean up your diet, lower your stress, and be active, both with your kids and on your own.
And if you’re wrestling with your own body issues, use that as a teaching tool, says Hes, who's also a director of the American Board of Obesity Medicine. "As a parent you can say, ‘Listen, I've struggled with my weight all my life. I don't want you to have the same problems I do. I really want to get healthy. Let's do it together.'”
Nurture Their Nutrition Knowledge
Review the basics with your teen to be sure they know what “eating healthy” really means. “So many teenagers skip breakfast,” Hes says. “Or they don't realize that eating late at night can make you put on weight.”
Be sure to talk about balance, too, Forman says. “They should understand that there's no one bad food group,” she says. “Fruits and vegetables should be part of the plate. Fats are an important part of the diet, as are proteins and carbohydrates. But having a cookie on occasion is fine, too.”
Call on the Experts
If you have serious concerns about your teen’s health, a medical professional can bring peace of mind for you and your child. You can talk with a doctor, counselor, or dietitian to get expert advice.
“Sometimes parents perceive their child's weight to be too much, or adequate, and that's not correct,” Forman says. “So checking in with the pediatrician, making sure that your suspicion is indeed something that needs to checked, can be helpful.”
Focus on the Positive
The most important thing you can do for your teen is to make sure they know you’re on their side, Bucchianeri says.
“Knowing that you love them regardless of their body size can be a powerful encouragement, and the support they need to adopt healthier habits,” she says.