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Concerned about your teen's weight?

October 23, 2013

When it comes to dealing with teens and their weight, there are no easy answers, and a new study shows that some of the things parents are doing to help may actually be harmful.

Don’t talk about weight or size; focus on healthy eating

Researchers studied more than 2,000 teens and their parents to determine what effect the conversations parents had with their children may have on their eating behaviors. Teens whose parents talked to them about their weight, whether or not the teens were overweight, were more likely to engage in unhealthy eating behaviors such as dieting, fasting or using laxatives. Teens whose parents engaged in conversations focused on healthy eating without any mention of weight or size were much less likely to engage in unhealthy eating behaviors.

All in all, this study seems to indicate that no matter what their size, teens whose parents focused on conversations about healthy eating habits fared significantly better than teens whose parents talked to them about their weight, or didn’t discuss the topic at all.

But, why?

If you’re like me, your next question is: why? Why does this distinction between the two types of conversations, weight and healthy eating, make all the difference?

Of course, a medical study can’t address that type of question, but I’ll give you my two cents. It’s shame.

When we talk to our kids about their weight, we are letting them know that we are watching and we are judging. Our critique speaks directly to their sense of self and their identity, which are already so fragile in the adolescent years. Whether we say it this way or not, the message they hear is this: you are what you weigh.

That message becomes deeply ingrained. Some kids, in a desperate attempt to maintain the image will go to extremes to uphold the standard set for them. Others will resign themselves to their fate, feeling helpless to overcome weight issues and may experience depression, or comfort themselves through binge eating. They become controlled either by the shame they feel because of their failure to meet these expectations or the fear of the shame that will come if they can’t continue meeting the expectations.

When we focus on healthy eating, though, we are talking about a habit. It is something we do not something we are.  And, we can change what we do. There isn’t guilt or shame, which will always work against you to prolong the very same problems you’re attempting to change. Just as we teach our preschooler to use the potty or our kindergartener to read, we should approach this as simply another opportunity to educate and prepare your child for the world. Talk about which foods are important for good health and the importance of a balanced diet and moderation. Always focus on the action, not the outcome.

Communicate love - no matter what

Perhaps the most important thing that our children, no matter what age, need to know is that we are going to love them no matter what - that our love isn’t tied to their success in achieving or maintaining a certain weight.

As parents, we tend to have certain expectations or goals that we would like our children to meet. However, sometimes it’s good to let go of our own ideas about who our child should be and instead discover who they really are and who they desire to become.

Only then can we truly embrace our role as teacher, supporter, counselor and friend.