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Talking with your teen about obesity: it's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it

September 29, 2011

In my years as a mental health counselor for Teen Xpress, I have worked with many teenagers that are battling weight problems. Obesity often leads to low self esteem, anger problems and depression. Often, we see obese teens that also have obese parents and other family members. Obesity can be caused by medical issues, but when it comes to teens, it is frequently due to unhealthy behaviors and coping skills. I have known many teens that report coping with feelings of sadness and loneliness by overeating. The overeating leads to weight gain, which leads to further feelings of isolation and depression. Teens quickly find themselves in a vicious cycle of unhealthy habits and emotional discord.

When it comes to teenagers and their parents, communication can be a struggle. Many parents may feel comfortable discussing tough topics with their teen, such as sex and drugs, but when it comes to weight they may prefer to avoid the subject entirely.  Avoidance is due to the parent’s comfort level; a parent may know their child’s weight is an issue, but may not want to bring it up for fear of hurting their child’s feelings or making them feel uncomfortable. When it comes to sex and drugs, a parent is not always aware of how much, if any, experimenting their child has engaged in. They may not really know what their teen is up to, so they go into those conversations feeling like, “I know my kid’s not doing this stuff, but we need to talk about it, so I’ll bring it up.”  This feeling may make these topics seem safe.

But, when parents talk with their teen about a weight issue, it becomes very personal. The issue feels more real for both the parent and teenager. Weight is a sensitive topic for most people- teenagers, adults and children. Most of us would like to lose or gain a few pounds at any given moment. Furthermore, if a parent is struggling with their own weight, they could feel hypocritical discussing the importance of a healthy diet and exercise.

Parents that have an obese teen should first take a good look in the mirror and at the rest of the family. Chances are, the teenager did not get to that weight overnight and there are many habits and choices along the way that contributed to it. Most of those habits and choices originated within the family. Parents that want to help their overweight teen need to be able to talk about their own choices and work together with the teen to make healthy changes that will benefit the whole family. Agreeing to exercise or work out at the gym together and go shopping together for healthy food are good ways to start. Having an open dialogue about the challenges and struggles of weight loss and health will strengthen the family bond.

Parents need to be open to finding appropriate help for their teen. Obesity can be a major problem and may need more intervention than mom and dad can handle alone.  Advocate for your teen by finding a therapist for them to talk with, if necessary, or attend support groups or self help meetings. Talk with your child’s doctor and seek out the advice of a dietician or nutritionist.

The most important ways to reach out to a teen that is struggling with obesity is to support them and participate with them in their journey to get healthy. Additionally, parents need to accept their child as they are and be careful not to send messages of unrealistic expectations, so that the weight loss can be managed safely and effectively, and the perception of “getting healthy” does not blur into “getting skinny”.