Talking about teens and weight is counterproductive
By Diana Simeon
When a teenager is overweight, it’s only natural for parents to want to talk about it. Isn’t it better to encourage a teenager to lose weight before it becomes a health issue?
Turns out, it’s not. Experts stress that while it may seem counterintuitive, it’s best for parents to avoid comments on a teenager’s weight altogether.
“What we know from research is when parents talk to their adolescent about losing weight, the teenager is more likely to engage in unhealthy dieting and weight control behaviors like bingeing,” explains Rebecca Puhl, Ph.D., deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut.
A study recently published in the journal Eating & Weight Disorders is just the latest to show the negative and lasting impact of weight-related remarks on teens. The study of more than 500 women in their 20s and 30s found that when the women recalled their parents as having talked about their weight (even infrequently) they were more likely to believe they needed to lose 10 or 20 pounds, regardless of whether they were overweight.
“Parental comments about a child’s weight, even if the comments are well-intentioned, even if they are expressed out of concern, can induce feelings of shame in a child,” says Puhl, who’s also a professor in UConn’s Department of Human Development & Family Studies. “This can have a lasting impact on their child’s emotional well-being, their body esteem, and their eating behaviors.”
Teens and Weight: Ideas for Parents
So, instead of talking about weight, what should parents be doing? Here’s what experts like Puhl recommend.
1. Focus on behavior, not numbers.
“If parents don’t talk about weight or the number on the scale, but instead really focus the conversation on healthy behavior—like eating nutritious foods, cutting out sugar-sweetened beverages, exercise—then the teenager is less likely to turn to unhealthy behaviors,” says Puhl.
Pediatrician Dr. Jennifer Trachtenberg agrees: “I always approach it in terms of the adolescent’s health,” she says. “I never specifically speak about their weight. I don’t talk about fat. I don’t talk about thin. It’s more important to talk about health.” Even if Trachtenberg believes a teenager should lose weight, she still doesn’t talk numbers (and neither should parents, she says).
Instead, Trachtenberg stresses, parents should focus on helping everyone in the family eat well and exercise, regardless of whether a family member needs to lose weight. And never set different rules for an overweight teenager. For example, if you’d rather your teenager didn’t drink soda, then don’t buy soda for anyone in your house.
“The same thing with exercise,” says Trachtenberg, who’s also an assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “You can’t force your teenager to exercise if no one else in the family is. So, do the family walks. Go on a bicycle ride. It’s more the doing than the saying that is going to make the difference because when you single a teenager out for being overweight, then they just feel badly.”
2. Downplay appearance.
Adolescents worry (often excessively) about what they look like. As such, they’re especially vulnerable to toxic messages — from family, from friends, from the broader culture—about appearance. “It’s too easy for teenagers to think that their self worth and their value depends on their appearance,” says Puhl. “Parents need to be the voice that really challenges the damaging, unhealthy messages about appearance that often target adolescents.”
This should include being mindful of the messages you allow inside your home. “For example, girls often gravitate toward fashion and celebrity magazines. A lot of these magazines promote unhealthy ideals of thinness. Keep those out of the home,” notes Puhl, adding that boys, likewise, can be inundated with toxic messages (think, six-pack abs). If your teenager wants a magazine subscription, Puhl suggests looking for one that lines up with an interest, like a sport or hobby.
Above all, practice helping your teenager build a sense of self that is not tied to what she looks like. Instead of complimenting your teenager’s appearance (“You’re so pretty”), focus instead on what you love about your teenager’s character (“You’re so kind”), personality (“You make me laugh”), effort (“You worked hard for that grade”), athleticism (“I love watching you play”), or talents (“You’re such a good cook”). “Parents have an important job to do, which is to help foster their teenager’s self-esteem from more important and meaningful sources,” stresses Puhl.
3. Be mindful of how you talk about weight.
Last, but hardly least, no “fat talk,” i.e., comments like I look so fat in this outfit or I can’t believe she is wearing those jeans. “When you are critical of your own weight or another person’s weight in front of your child, not only is that unhelpful, it can reinforce this idea that what’s important is physical appearance,” explains Puhl. “You want to think about how you talk about weight, and you want to model acceptance of people of diverse body sizes. Especially if you have a child who is overweight, it’s really important that they see their parents accepting people and praising people for their talents, abilities, and accomplishments, regardless of body size.”
What about when your own teenager engages in fat talk? The dreaded, Mom, do I look fat in these jeans? “Take the conversation in a different direction,” recommends Trachtenberg. “You could say, ‘Oh, that’s a cool-looking outfit. It looks great with your eyes.’ It’s more listening and trying to figure out why your teenager is asking. Mostly, they are looking for reassurance. They want your acceptance and approval that they are okay while they are going through this tumultuous time in their life.”
Diana Simeon is managing editor of Your Teen Magazine.