As the parent of a formerly overweight teen, I understand that parents often feel like they’re walking on a tightrope when it comes to knowing what to say and do when their teen is overweight. The good news is that my oldest son Wes lost more than 60 pounds as a teenager. But he did it his way – and in his own time. His experiences inspired me to find other teens who had lost weight in healthy ways and kept it off for year or more. I interviewed them and many of their parents to find out what works and what doesn’t work when trying to help an overweight teen. Here are the highlights of what I found out:
“Don’t tell me my weight is okay.” If your teen is overweight and says he wants to slim down, listen to his concerns and offer to help find some solutions. Don’t minimize the problem. Psychologist Dr. Kerri Boutelle, a weight and eating disorders expert at the University of California, San Diego, and Fitsmi advisor, says that it’s much more effective for parents to validate what teens are feeling than to try to talk them out of it. She explains, “A parent might say, ‘I can see that this bothers you. I’m sorry that you feel bad about how you look. Is there anything I can do to make you feel better?’”
“Get off my back.” Don’t nag, preach, criticize, or try to coerce your teen into losing; talk to her like a friend, not a disciplinarian. Eric D’s mother listed these unproductive strategies: “Getting upset with him every time we ended up having to buy the next-larger-size clothes; telling him what he couldn’t order when we went out to dinner; reminding him he was overweight – he already knew that and didn’t need to be reminded.” Nagging and pressure can too easily backfire. My son Wes says “Pressure to lose weight from outside forces, like parents, coaches, and health teachers, only led to more guilt. And that just made me eat more.”
“Let ME be in charge.” It’s up to the teen to decide if, how, and when she wants to lose. Pushing teens to lose weight before they’re ready to make a commitment to change their eating and exercise habits can set them up for failure, bruise their self-esteem, and discourage future weight loss attempts. Wes told me, “All the things that you taught me about losing weight were the things I ended up using when I finally did it. But it was a matter of maturity and being ready.”
“Don’t be a food cop.” Comments like “Are you hungry AGAIN?” and “You don’t need that bowl of ice cream!” will backfire. Rex G. said that his parents used to try to control the amount of food he ate during meals by saying, “You’re done; you’ve had enough.” This only made Rex eat faster so that he could get more food in before the “cutoff” and led him to sneak food whenever he could get away with it.
“Be there when I’m ready. Be a role model.” Support your teen’s choices and praise her efforts: help her find affordable ways to exercise or a program she’d like to attend. Be a role model for healthy eating and exercise. Some teens said that their parents’ example set the stage for them. Rebecca M’s Dad started losing weight before his daughter did: “I never talked to my daughter about weight and never tried to impose any approach. On her own she decided to lose weight, and changed her eating habits just as I had done. I helped her by indicating how she could make better food choices. There was nothing in particular that I did to support her other than to let her know that I could tell that she was losing weight and that she was doing a good job on her new ‘food program.’”
“Help me out, don’t single me out.” Create a healthy home food climate – for the entire family, not just the overweight teen. Provide kids with healthy, appealing food choices without making them feel deprived. Aaron T. says, “Don’t make overweight kids feel singled out at the dinner table, like by having meals that are different from everyone else’s. Use your child as an opportunity for the whole family to eat better.” Kirsten says that her Mom’s efforts to stock healthy foods and eliminate junk has taken the pressure off. “If tempting foods are around,” she says, “you feel like your family’s not supporting your ambitions. When you’re home, you want to relax and not have to worry about being tempted.”
“Love me no matter what.” Let your teen know she’s loved whatever her weight is and whether or not she succeeds at slimming down. Richie C’s mother advises, ‘Don’t criticize children who are overweight – they get enough rejection in the outside world. Let them know they are loved and accepted at home.” On the other hand, parents shouldn’t completely abandon ship either. Eric D’s mother says, “Giving up on trying to help Eric with his weight loss when he was content with the computer and movies on TV wasn’t the solution either.”
“Be patient.” Understand that losing weight takes time, effort, patience, and often multiple attempts. Staying positive and affirming success is crucial for many teens to avoid the sense that they’ve “ruined it” and might as well eat that second or third donut. Even if they gain back part or all of the weight they’ve lost, remind them that they did it once and can do it again. Jeana S says, “Changing your body isn’t easy. It’s a lot like a roller coaster: as long as your coaster is going down more than up, you’ll eventually get to where you want to be.”
“Help me be realistic.” After losing weight, your teen may not be “thin,” but she’ll be healthier and happier. Here are some ideas that teens themselves have suggested they’d say to other young people who are at a healthy weight but not at their “dream weight.” “Focus on your assets; not your flaws. “Surround yourself with positive people.” “Recognize how far you’ve come.” “Think about other attractive people who aren’t perfect.” “Accept that life isn’t always fair and try to make the best of things.”
“Believe in me.” Send the message that you know your teen can succeed and that you’ll be there if she needs you. Emily B, a formerly overweight teen, advises parents, “Be supportive of their choices. And if they mess up, don’t get angry. Help them learn how to handle it next time. Make sure to talk to teens about what they’re going through because it’s hard, and parents are easier to talk to about weight than friends are most of the time”
Adapted from Weight Loss Confidential: How Teens Lose Weight and Keep It Off — And What They Wish Parents Knew by Anne Fletcher, MS, RD, Houghton Mifflin/Harcourt, 2007.