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How to Focus on Your Teen’s Health, Not Weight

Parents must intervene, in a productive way

Two adults cooking dinner with a child

For teens who struggle with their weight, it can be easy for them — and their parents — to fret about the number they see on the bathroom scale. But parents can actually help their teens by taking the focus off what they weigh and instead encouraging better eating habits.

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The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has issued evidence-based guidance for parents and doctors on how to help teenagers avoid obesity and eating disorders. This is important, especially during the very self-critical years in their lives.

“When it comes to teens and adolescents, it’s best for parents to avoid talking about weight and instead focus on setting a good example through healthy eating and exercise,” says pediatrician Sarah Klein, MD.

What behaviors parents should watch for

As a parent, you want to be very cautious of how you react to your child’s potentially unhealthy lifestyle choices. In fact, the AAP report says certain parenting behaviors can be directly linked to obesity and eating disorders in teenagers, including:

  • Forced dieting. Forcing a healthier diet on your teen is a risk factor for both obesity and eating disorders.
  • Weight talk. Family members commenting about their own weight or their child’s weight is linked to eating disorders.
  • Teasing about weight. Teasing can lead to unhealthy weight control behaviors and binge eating.
  • Body image dissatisfaction. When a parent is openly dissatisfied with the way their own body or their child’s body looks, this can increase their risk for eating disorders.

“I suggest that parents focus on modeling healthy behaviors rather than focusing on weight,” Dr. Klein says. “Parents need to set the best example and not be hypocritical when it comes to their own eating and exercise habits.”

“It’s also not a good idea for parents to take up fad diets and then talk about them in the presence of their kids,” Dr. Klein says. Often, teens will pick up on weight or diet goals their parents are trying to achieve and go for it themselves, not understanding the full repercussions.

“Don’t focus on your child’s weight at mealtime,” Dr. Klein says. “Don’t say, ‘You can’t have that because you’re overweight.’” The entire family needs to eat healthy portions of nutritious food, even those members of the family who don’t have overweight.

Real danger exists when teens try weight-loss tactics like fasting, using diet pills or laxatives, or performing excessive exercise, the AAP study adds. Studies have also shown that teens who diet are actually more likely than their peers to develop overweight and eating disorders. Additionally, eating disorders can be overlooked or hidden because of the misconception that only extremely thin people have them.

The right approach to focusing on your teen’s health

Dr. Klein says it’s best for parents to focus on communicating to their children what measures can be taken for good health, instead of making restrictions. Healthy habits include:

  • Family meals. Family meals can provide a great opportunity for parents to demonstrate healthy eating behaviors and improve their children’s quality of diet.
  • Focus on healthy eating. Focus on commending your children for trying healthier foods vs. commenting on how much they weigh.
  • Foster a healthy body image. Reinforcing a positive body image in your child has been linked to fewer negative weight control behaviors.

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“Parents can help their children by identifying those healthy things to do,” Dr. Klein says. “Try to set your kid up for success by keeping healthy foods in the house, and keeping the snacks out of the house that you know are going to be trouble. And don’t forget to compliment your children several times a day for making good choices and having good behavior.”

If you are still uncertain, the best thing parents can do is talk to their doctor, instead of trying unhealthy measures on their own first, Dr. Klein says. This allows for safety and transparency.

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