How to Help An Overweight Teen

Your teen's weight is affecting their health -- physically or mentally -- so you're concerned. Maybe they've been diagnosed with a weight-related health problem, like high blood pressure or sleep apnea. Or maybe they worry about their size or faces bullies at school.

You want to help, but it's not easy for a parent to know how. While your teen might feel upset or angry about their weight, they may also not want you to meddle. As much as they may try to tackle their problems on their own, though, it’s important for you to be involved.

You can help your kid make changes to their diet and exercise habits that will put them on a healthier track.

Set the Stage for Success

A few tactics will let you set them up to make healthy choices.

Talk with your teen’s doctor about their BMI.

The doctor can calculate their body mass index (BMI), a way to measure body fat percentage, based on weight and height. They can compare the result with other teens their age. If their BMI falls within the overweight or obese range, talk with the doc about what their weight goals should be.

They may not need to actually lose weight -- just maintain and "grow into it" as they get taller. But if they do need to slim down, experts say teens shouldn’t drop more than 2 pounds a week.

Talk with your child to get their buy-in.

They have to be on board and involved with any plan to lose weight. Your approach is key.

Don't tell your teen they need to drop extra pounds. Talk to them. Ask questions like, "How do you feel about your weight?"

Then, listen to them. If they push back, lay off the topic for a little while. Hopefully you'll have planted a seed for thought, and they'll be more open the next time you bring it up.

Be a coach, not a sheriff.

You have more of an influence over your child than you might think. The trick is to not force a healthy lifestyle on them. Encourage them to find their own reasons to change their diet or get more exercise.

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Research supports ideas that may seem like common sense: Overweight teens don't feel happy about their size. They don't want to be teased at school. But they do want to feel in control.

Start with changes at home.

Help your kid succeed by making good changes for everyone in your family -- including yourself. If you single out one person, it won't work. They’ll feel criticized and punished, not motivated. Everyone in the family will benefit when you set health goals together.

Share your struggle.

Changes might be hard to make, even for the adults. It's OK if your teen sees you struggling to build new habits. Let them hear your frustration as you waver between a healthy snack like carrots and hummus versus chips and dip. Let them know that it can be hard to make the time and energy to go for a walk around the neighborhood. But remind them -- and yourself -- that feeling good afterward is worth it.

Set Up Lifestyle Changes

Help your teen tweak some of their habits. That can help them slim down and be healthier overall. The right amount of sleep, less time in front of the TV, phone, and computer, and stress-relief tricks all help them have more energy to make good choices. But you can start with a focus on their food choices and exercise.

Diet

The best way to change how your teen eats is to keep it simple. Start with five basic steps.

  1. Lose the soda. Swap those calorie-heavy drinks, including juices and sports drinks, for good old water or low-fat milk.
  2. Make vegetable and fruits easy snack choices. Keep them clean, cut, and waiting in the front of the fridge so they're easy to see and eat. Start meals with a salad.
  3. Encourage breakfast every day. Teens will often give up their morning meal to sleep later, but that could mean they’re so hungry at lunch that they’ll overeat or give into junk-food cravings. So hand them something to eat on the way to school, like a smoothie made out of yogurt and fresh fruit, or an apple and a wedge of cheese.
  4. Don't keep junk food in the house. Although you have limited control of what your teen eats outside your walls, you can keep the bad stuff off the menu in your home.
  5. Eat at home. Restaurant foods have an average of 33% more calories than the same meal cooked at home, research shows. One study found that the more often a family ate together, the less likely a teen was to be overweight.

Exercise

Health experts recommend that teens get at least 60 minutes of exercise a day. But if your child isn’t too active now, they’ll need to build up to that goal. Try these tactics to get them moving:

  • Help them set small, achievable goals. It’s fine to start with 10 minutes a day -- as long as they do it. Then have them slowly add a few minutes every day. When they succeed with small steps, they’ll build their self-confidence and stay motivated.
  • Get the whole family involved. Take family hikes, or go on bike rides together. Keep jump ropes and hand weights around the home. Get pedometers for everyone to help you all take more steps. It’s easier for a teen to move more if everyone is doing it together. Get your teen involved in planning menus.

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Tips for Parents

Major lifestyle changes that affect the whole family can be daunting -- and your teen may push back at first. These tips can help you keep things moving forward.

Don't change everything at once.

Don't suddenly outlaw all sweets, demand 2-hour jogs, and hide the video-game console in the garage. That will backfire and set your teen up for failure. Start with the simplest changes -- ones that your child can complete and feel good about. Focus on doing them every day, and then encourage them to do more over time. You may want to consider family challenges or a reward system.

Don't micro-manage.

If you comment on every bite they put in their mouth, they are likely to get angry and withdraw. You’ll also damage their confidence in their own decision-making. They are trying to make some big changes in their life, and it will take time. They'll slip up here and there, and that's normal. What you want to see is progress, so try to keep the big picture in mind.

Stress a positive body image.

In our popular media, thin is beautiful. That’s hard for a heavy kid. You can’t change culture or what they see online. But you can emphasize what's important. Comment on your teen's strengths and positive qualities regularly. Let them know that they are wonderful, and you love them unconditionally. Help them see that the people who make judgments based on looks are not seeing them for who they are.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Renee A. Alli, MD on June 07, 2020

Sources

SOURCES: 

Lawrence Cheskin, MD, associate professor, Johns Hopkins Medical School; director, Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center, Baltimore.

William H. Dietz, MD, PhD, director, Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta.

Karen Donato, SM, coordinator, Overweight and Obesity Research Applications, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md.

Dan Kirschenbaum, PhD, vice president, Clinical Services, Wellspring -- a division of CRC Health; director, Center for Behavioral Medicine & Sport Psychology, Chicago; professor, psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Northwestern University Medical School, Chicago.

Kristen Liebl, LRD, Sanford Medical Center, Fargo, N.D.

Ann O. Scheimann, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics, Johns Hopkins Children's Center, Baltimore.

Michelle Van Beek, MD, pediatrician, Weight Management Clinic, Sanford Children's Clinic, Sioux Falls, S.D.

Kirschenbaum, D. Obesity Management, February 2009.

Kelly, K. Obesity Reviews, Jan. 12, 2010.

Rodearmel, S. American Academy of Pediatrics, October 2007.

Stice, E. Psychological Bulletin, 2006.

US Preventive Services Taskforce, Pediatrics, February 2010.

Barlow, S. Pediatrics, 2007.

Taveras, E. Obesity Research, May 2005.

Hettema, J. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 2005.

American Medical Association: "Expert Committee Recommendations on the Assessment, Prevention and Treatment of Child and Adolescent Overweight and Obesity."

My Overweight Child: "What About Over-the-Counter Weight Loss Pills?"

USDA: "America's Eating Habits: Changes and Consequences."

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