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.
Behavior with links to obesity, eating disorders
As a parent, you want to be very cautious of how your child reacts to your acknowledgement of their unhealthy lifestyle choices. In fact, the AAP report says certain parental behaviors can be directly linked to obesity and eating disorders in teenagers, which include:
- Forced dieting. A risk factor for both obesity and eating disorders is to force a healthier diet onto your teen.
- Weight talk. Comments by family members about their own weight or their child’s weight are linked to eating disorders.
- Weight teasing. This leads 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 poses a risk factor 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 the things their parents are trying to succeed at 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 are not 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 shown that teens who diet actually are more likely than their peers to become overweight and develop eating disorders. Also, 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 that it’s best for parents to identify to their children what can be done for good health, not on making restrictions. Healthy habits include:
- Family meals. Family meals provide an opportunity for parents to demonstrate healthy eating behavior and improve their children’s quality of diet.
- Focus on healthy eating. Don’t focus on how much your child weighs but instead commend them for trying healthier foods.
- Foster a healthy body image. A positive body image has been linked to fewer negative weight control behaviors.
“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.”
The best thing for teens and adults to do if they are concerned about their weight is to talk to their doctor about it, instead of trying measures on their own first, Dr. Klein says. This allows for safety and transparency.