How to talk to your teen about weight
Talking to your teenager about weight can be tricky — it’s a sensitive topic and can feel very personal. But these conversations are important to have. That’s true whether you have a kid who seems to be struggling with weight gain or one who may have gotten more restrictive or secretive about food.
It’s important to be positive, supportive and a good listener. You may make some mistakes in talking to your teen about weight-related issues, but that’s all right. The important thing is to keep trying.
“From our research, we see that many teens avoid talking about their weight with their parents because it makes them feel upset or embarrassed,” says Rebecca Puhl, Ph.D., the deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health and a professor in the department of human development and family sciences at the University of Connecticut.
“If parents plan to initiate a conversation about their teen’s weight, it’s important to approach it with sensitivity and be careful to avoid criticizing or pressuring them about their weight,” Puhl says.
How to start a conversation with your teen about weight
Setting the stage for the conversation is just as important as what you say. Teens are more willing to talk about weight if their parents ask permission to discuss it or if parents let teens bring it up themselves, says Puhl.
A good way to begin is by asking questions rather than talking at your teen, says Martin Harrington, M.D., a child/adolescent psychiatrist at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska.
You could start with regular check-ins about how they’re doing at school. Are they facing any bullying or teasing? If they say yes, are they willing to share more details? If not, you could ask whether there’s someone else — another family member, a mental health professional — that they would feel comfortable talking to about it instead.
Establishing regular communication between you and your teen is a helpful way to stay connected. Car rides or mealtimes offer natural opportunities to talk about everything from what they’re studying at school and what music they like to more serious subjects like physical health, eating habits and body image, Dr. Harrington says.
During those times when your teen does open up to you, be ready with good follow-up questions. For example, “If a teen expresses concerns about their weight, a good place to start is for their parents to say, ‘Tell me a little bit more about where this is coming from,’” says Lisa Damour, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and an expert on child and adolescent development.
Talk to your teen about overall health, not body size
One smart tip for talking to your teen about weight? Don’t actually talk about weight. At least not in terms of a number on the scale, clothing size or body shape. It’s better to frame the conversation as being about health and healthy behavior rather than appearances, Puhl says.
“Focus on the importance of healthy habits like smart eating behaviors, physical activity, getting enough sleep and having healthy coping strategies to deal with stress,” she says. And point out the ways that your teen’s body benefits them — perhaps as an athlete, dancer or artist.
Maybe you’re worried that your teen is eating too much junk food, for instance. “You can say, ‘I’m worried about your relationship with food and how well you’re taking care of yourself.’ Do you have worries in that same department?’” Damour says. “See where your teen is at.”
Your teen may admit that they would like some help eating better or dealing with a negative body image. But even if they say nothing, asking questions shows your child that you are concerned about their health.
Also, be open to ideas from your teen about ways that they might improve their own health habits. “Teens are organized around autonomy. They don’t want to be told what to do about anything, much less eating and exercising,” Damour says.
Sometimes it can be helpful to have a neutral third party like a nutritionist or pediatrician talk to your child. Help your teen get professional help if you suspect that your child has an eating disorder or that their weight or body image is negatively impacting their mental health.1
Parents can help by modeling healthy habits for their teens
You might think your teen isn’t listening or noticing you, but the fact is they’re often paying a lot more attention to what you say and do than you might realize.
“Teenagers are highly attuned to the unspoken messages in our homes,” Damour says. That includes what messages adults send about food, body image and exercise. “We hold a lot of power in their lives and they’re trying to make sense of themselves and us. And they’re figuring out which aspects of us they find inspiring and which they hope to improve upon in their own lives.”
While you can’t control what your teen faces in the outside world — whether that’s social media or peer pressure — you can model healthy habits and behaviors toward food, body image and exercise at home.
How do you talk about body weight?
Are you constantly saying you need to lose 20 pounds? Do you refer to food and exercise in terms of rewards and punishments? Consider the ways you could reposition your message, and show acceptance for different body shapes and sizes, including your own. Instead of making a big deal about cleaning out your pantry of unhealthy foods, make family meals and everyday nutrition a bigger priority.
Consider these tips to incorporate into your day with your teen to build healthy perspectives2:
- Be an example with your own habits for healthy eating and exercise
- Be mindful of how you talk about your weight and body image
- Show acceptance of others and their physical appearance
- Hold open conversations about what’s seen on media channels
- Provide healthy food alternatives
- Discuss the benefits of physical activity from a health perspective
- Build your teen’s confidence and encourage them
Do you make physical activity sound fun?
Frame exercise — going on hikes, bike rides, walks — as something you enjoy doing together as a family, Damour says. Those kinds of activities should be fun, not grueling or unpleasant. Think “a hike to check out gorgeous fall foliage” versus insisting that everyone take a turn on the elliptical machine in the basement.
Making healthy behaviors something that the whole family does together also improves the chances of them sticking as habits, Puhl says. And it puts less pressure on your teen.
Turn to healthy eating habits
From eating at regular intervals to striving for a balanced meal, there are great healthy eating habits you can begin today. Learn ways to make healthy eating a little easier.