Viw Magazine


  • Written by Joann Lukins, Associate professor of psychology, James Cook University
imageIt's important to focus on health, not weight.Flickr/Zhao, CC BY-SA

Adolescence is a tumultuous time developmentally and emotionally, as the teenage body goes through rapid and severe changes. A new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests not to talk about weight, including your own, in front of teens, and not to encourage dieting.

But if your teenager is overweight or has other weight problems, how do you address it if official guidelines tell you not to mention it?

Talking about health

While the guidelines recommend avoiding weight talk, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk to our teens about their health. We just have to be careful how we frame the discussion.

First, it’s important to plan what you are going to say. Remind yourself of the intention of your conversation and the key messages you want to communicate.

The line between family banter and family bullying can be a blurry one, so ensure your conversations are respectful. Stay away from language that teases your child.

It’s important to keep the focus on health rather than weight. A person’s weight is only one part of the health equation. Good health is influenced by sleep, nutrition, physical activity, hydration and psychological well-being.

When you focus on the journey of good health, weight loss may well become part of the overall outcome, but it shouldn’t be the sole focus. Conversations about weight or clothing size can convey pressure on the teen to lose weight, and increase likely feelings of shame and general body dissatisfaction.

Parents can start the conversation with their teen by saying things like:

There are little things we can do to improve our health. When we put those in place, we’ll feel better.

Making some changes to our routine will help improve your sleep and concentration at school.

Are you interested in performing better at netball? We can probably look at a few things we are all doing at home that we can improve and you might notice a difference.

The challenge for people listening to conversations on weight loss is that speaking negatively about it doesn’t actually give any practical strategies to change behaviour. It simply adds negativity, guilt and disconnection from the person criticising it.

Speaking positively about health and the benefits of a healthy lifestyle is much more conducive to positive change. The challenge for most people with behaviour change is that information is rarely enough to change behaviour.

Most people know we need to exercise more, eat better, watch less TV and not smoke, but knowledge isn’t enough. Understanding why we want to change is the key to engaging with change.

imageThe whole family needs to make efforts to get healthy, not just the teenager whose weight is of concern.Kate McCarthy/Flickr, CC BY

It’s also important to know what you’re talking about. Try to gather some knowledge from exercise physiologists, dietitians, paediatricians and psychologists before you start.

The first appointment with a professional should ideally occur without your teen present. This gives you an opportunity to talk openly with the professional about your concerns and gain some information for you as a parent before focusing specifically on your teen. In many instances with young teens, the visit to the dietitian is far more appropriate for the parent than for the child.

As a general rule, if an approach to eating has the word “diet” in it, it should be avoided. Eating needs to be about the intake of a wide range of foods and trying not to get caught up in labelling foods as “good” or “bad”.

Understanding healthy eating includes eating breakfast (which teens often skip), fruits, vegetables, proteins, carbohydrates, fats and oils. Even the occasional biscuit or cake is an important part of the nutrition foundation.

Teenagers often get caught up in fad diets, such as paleo, and think they should avoid whole food groups such as carbohydrates, despite these being essential to us. Binge eating at the end of the day is another unhealthy trend common in teens.

Put the scales away

Scales can easily become too much of an unhealthy focus and unnecessarily amplify the importance of kilos over health. If health professionals are involved in supporting you and your teen, leave the scale measurements to their office (if they even use them).

What kind of role model are you?

It’s important to think about how you stack up as a role model for healthy behaviours. Do you participate in physical activity? What are your food choices like? How do you describe your body? If you’re the one putting food in the household, what are you buying?

Your credibility in the conversations with your teen depends upon whether you walk the walk (literally). This may be an opportunity to improve some of your health-related behaviours. This may also be an opportunity to share some of your life experiences:

I’ve found it challenging to include exercise regularly through my life – perhaps we can do this together.

Don’t single your child out

Removing all the chocolate biscuits and chips from your pantry because “Mary needs to lose weight” is not going to be a great focus within the family dynamics. The whole family can benefit from the healthy lifestyle message. When we all eat less sugar, more fruit, slow down our food and drink more water, we all benefit. A healthy approach is a great family approach and doesn’t need to single out any one family member.

Your love for your child is not correlated to their weight or appearance. Reassuring your child you love and support them unconditionally is crucial for a healthy relationship with your teen. When we feel supported, we’re more likely to make better choices.

Joann Lukins does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

Authors: Joann Lukins, Associate professor of psychology, James Cook University

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