Weight can be a touchy subject. So when Veronica Wilson’s 13-year-old daughter, Mandy, was trying on clothes one day and asked, “Do you think I’m fat?” Wilson knew she needed
to tread gently. Instead of a yes or no, she answered with more questions: “How do you feel? How do your clothes feel?”
Good approach, says Jess Haines, a University of Guelph assistant professor of applied human nutrition. “Weight and appearance are very sensitive issues for teens. You need their home to be a place where they can talk about these things without being criticized.”
Mandy doesn’t have unrealistic expectations,” says Wilson. “She just wants to fit into her favourite pair of jeans, and to feel like she’s taking an active role in her health. I try to give her the tools to do this.”
But what if your teen asks, “Am I fat?” and the honest answer is yes?
“You can’t fool teenagers,” says Scott Wooding, a Calgary psychologist and author. “They can look in a mirror, so they know if they’re overweight. Sure, it’s a delicate topic, but the way to talk about it is to treat them like real people. If your child asks if you think he’s fat, you can say, ‘Let’s get a reality check; we’ll look up some height and weight charts and see.’ Then you can come up with an action plan.”
Haines is also a fan of the action-plan idea — in fact, her motto is “Talk less and do more.” Here are some of her recommendations to promote healthy eating and activity for all teens.
Reinforce that your child is more than the numbers on the scale. “How we look is just one part of who we are,” Haines points out. If you reassure your teen that he has your love and admiration, and compliment him on things besides his appearance, it will help him put his weight into perspective.
Wilson reminds Mandy that the Hollywood stars many teens try to copy “have access to the best — the best chefs, the best personal trainers, the best teachers — and it’s their job to maintain their attractiveness.”
Model healthy behaviour
That includes not talking negatively about your own body, Haines says. “Maybe you can have a family rule — we don’t talk negatively about how we look or how other family members look.” She adds that research shows teens who feel badly about their bodies are less likely to be active and less likely to eat nutritious fruits and vegetables, behaviours that add up to becoming more overweight. When teens feel good about themselves, they are more likely to take good care of their bodies.
The other side of modelling healthy behaviour is eating appropriately and being active. Wilson takes “power walks” with Mandy: “This gives us a chance to talk too — about boys, about school, about her goals.” In fact, if Wilson bemoans her own “middle-aged spread,” Mandy will remind her, “You look good, Mom, but it might make you feel better if you go on the treadmill.”
Focus on health
Teens get very mixed messages from our society, says Haines. Advertisers sell unhealthy foods in large portions yet also promote a very thin ideal body. As Wooding points out, not everyone is blessed with a fast metabolism, but everyone can try to eat healthier and become more fit. If you encourage a focus on weight alone, it may put your child at risk of an eating disorder.
Make healthy choices easy
“Help your child find an activity or exercise that is fun for her,” advises Wooding. For some kids, the camaraderie of team sports is a good motivator, but those who are more self-conscious about their appearance or athletic skills may prefer a treadmill at home. You can also help when you hit the grocery store if you avoid sweet and fatty snacks and stock up on tasty but lower-calorie (and nutritious) options like fruits and vegetables. If you cut up some fruit and veggies and keep them in the fridge where they’re easy to access, they’re more likely to be chosen when hunger hits.
Support, don’t nag
“Nagging is when you say, ‘Have you done your workout yet?’” says Wooding. Support is making it easier for the child to work out, and encouraging her when it’s challenging. Support also means being empathetic: “It’s tough to be a bigger-than-average teen,” says Haines. “Your child may need you to listen when others treat her badly.”
Even if your teen is committed to getting healthier, there are likely to be setbacks — and that’s another time when empathy and understanding are crucial. Wooding adds that while teens tend to want instant results, effective weight loss is usually slow and steady. He advises parents to be patient even though teens rarely are. “Just take it one day at a time,” he says.