How to Address Your Teen's Weight

Parents may do nothing to change their teens’ music and fashion tastes, but weight is a completely different matter.

How parents address their teen’s weight is in general very disappointing. Usually, they encourage their children to diet. However, this approach is not effective. According to a study conducted by the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, teens who are subjected to strict dieting are more likely to remain overweight after a few years compared to their counterparts whose parents have no idea whatsoever that their children are overweight and do nothing.

The study analyzed overweight, binge eating, weight-control measures (like laxative use, diet pills, and induced vomiting), as well as personal or social behavioral factors that are potentially connected with these measures. About 2,400 teenagers (1,100 boys and 1,300 girls) studying in St. Paul/Minneapolis middle and high schools participated in the study.

Data gathered at the beginning of the study were compared with data collected five years later. Results reveal that 29% of the boys and 44% of the girls still had weight-related problems. The study also shows that 60% of boys’ parents and 46% of girls’ parents were wrong to think that their teens’ weights were just right. In addition, 60% of the parents who knew all along that their children had weight-related problems encouraged them to lose weight by dieting. The 2003 follow-up study of around 200 of the children reveals that those who underwent dieting were more likely to remain overweight. Seventy-four percent of boys who followed diet plans were still overweight; only 52% of boys who were not told to diet remained overweight. The difference for girls was 66% and 44%, respectively.

The study suggests that overweight teens have more tendency to practice binge eating or extreme weight-control measures when parents give much attention to weight issues. On the contrary, it proposes that regular eating patterns and sit-down meals in the family may protect teens from weight-related problems. Dianne R. Neumark-Sztainer, an epidemiology professor, says, "I advise parents to talk less about weight and do more to make the home environment one in which it is easy to engage in healthy eating and exercise behaviors."

In addressing your children’s weight-related problems, you must consider the following: genetics affect how one looks, culture and society construct what is "ideal", and then there is reality. Teens should be taught how to balance these three issues. Modern societies consider slim and thin as the ideal, but we all know that it is impossible that everybody can have this kind of body. Parents should be aware of what is realistic and set reasonable and realistic expectations for their teens. Teens need to learn to be positive and feel good about themselves instead of painstakingly striving for something unrealistic.

Neumark-Sztainer offers parents some advice. As role models, parents themselves should eat healthy food, set regular family meals, buy food rich in nutrition, and engage their teens in physical activities. Parents and children may enroll in a class together: a boot camp or a fitness class, or any activity that will engage the whole family. Parents may also plan regular active outing. In addition, parents and their teens cooking together is a great idea.

A do-more-talk-less approach is effective. Parents should educate themselves first before educating their teens. It takes hard work as parents may need to change their own diet. But the pay-off will be great.