Let’s face it. Puberty is a messy, awkward, embarrassing roller-coaster of body changes and hormone induced emotional turmoil. As difficult as it can be to parent a teenager, it is easy to forget how hard it is to BE a teenager – especially a teenager struggling with his or her weight.
Weight gain for most kids going through puberty is natural, but society tells both parents and kids that it isn’t okay. Girls especially can gain a layer of fat all over the body before blossoming into curves. Natural hormonal changes transform teen’s metabolism so that a kid who once was able to eat anything, suddenly is gaining weight without changing any eating habits. To complicate matters further, the adolescent years are when kids are making more and more food decisions on their own. All of these factors can cause a teen’s weight to creep up. In our family, we have one teen daughter who can eat anything, but her twin sister can look at a cupcake and gain weight.
These natural body differences can make teens who do gain weight feel embarrassed and even ashamed.
Open communication with a hormonal teenager can be difficult, but taking this subject head on is the key. Healthy eating habits are always important, but if a teen is overweight after their growth spurt ends (typically age 14 for girls and 16 for boys) or were overweight before their growth spurt, it is probably time to be concerned. Talking with your teen during the growth spurt and creating a healthy environment at home will support healthy habits and a teen’s positive self image.
Here are some questions to start a healthy dialogue about food and weight:
“Isn’t it amazing how one person’s body can be so different from another?”
Yes, it is totally unfair that your friend, sister, brother, or parent can eat junk food all day and have clear skin and never gain an ounce. Listen to what your teen has to say about his or her own body issues. Make sure your teen understands that weight gain in puberty is a natural. Each person’s body is different. Our metabolisms are different and change over time. Judging yourself against someone else, or an airbrushed image in the media isn’t healthy. Remind your teen that appearance isn’t what is important, being healthy is the key. We all need to figure out what our individual bodies need to be healthy.
“Do your friends talk about going on a diet?”
Diet is a four-letter word in our household. Being healthy and managing weight are both lifelong commitments, not something that can be “fixed” with a temporary solution. Diets, particularly restrictive diets, in the teen years set kids up for a lifetime of weight yo-yoing, which is anything but healthy. Help your teen understand that developing habits of eating nutritious foods most of the time and enjoying periodic treats is essential. We all need to find our own body’s natural equilibrium. How much healthy food do we need to eat, how much do we need to move, how many treats can we have, and maintain a healthy body? What makes this particularly difficult, however, is that given the choice between chips and veggies, most kids are going to choose the chips. Food manufactures design junk food to trigger the pleasure centers in the brain and make us want more. In our own school cafeteria, kids are offered multiple kinds of chips and sweets, but only one or two choices of fruits or vegetables. Being restrictive about food, counting calories, or having a bunch of rules or “nevers” (you can never have chips, never have soda, never have candy) sets your teen up for rebellion. Don’t make food your battle ground.
The best strategy to support healthy eating habits is often to create an environment at home.
“What are your biggest temptations, and how can I help you enjoy them periodically?”
Creating a supportive and healthy environment at home is essential for teens developing life-long healthy habits. For example, one of my daughters loves to bake. We don’t want to squelch her creativity, but none of us needs the temptation of baked goods. Now, I ask her what she plans to do with the items she bakes. As long as there is a plan for the goodies leaving the house, the answer is yes to baking. Ask what your treat your teen loves to eat. If it is chips, perhaps that is something you purchase periodically, rather than keeping a supply in the cupboard. Removing the temptation at home can make a big difference and there is always ample opportunity for treats away from home. Creating a temptation-free zone at home could not only improve the health of the teen, but also the whole family. In addition, families who eat at least one meal together tend to be healthier and have better relationships. Making at least one healthy and delicious meal per day (it doesn’t have to be dinner), and enjoying it together without interruption by phones, television, or other electronic gadgets can positively impact health and family communication.
“Would you go for a walk with me?”
Leading by healthy example may be the best way to help your teen navigate creating their own healthy lifestyle. While it is important to be honest and open, you may want to think hard about the messages you send your kids. Both my husband and I talk about the amount of exercise we need to do to be healthy and are careful not to be judgmental about our daughters’ activity levels. Inviting them to join us, or providing opportunities to be active, is more effective than telling them they need to be more active. Both of us also often choose not to have a dessert or treat because it isn’t “worth the calories.” We save our treats for something delicious and really savor them too. We again try not to be judgmental about the girls’ choice to have a treat. Rather than asking, “Do you really want (or need) to eat that?” we find “Are you really going to enjoy that?” more effective and supportive.
“What can I do to motivate you to develop healthy habits?”
Most of us are motivated by reward. Let’s be honest, eating healthy and being active are often not very fun. Yes, healthy food can be delicious. Yes, activity can be enjoyable. But yet, most of us don’t choose those habits. We do what we want to do, not what someone tells us we should do. Connecting healthy habits with a reward, of course not a food reward, can make a big difference. For example, when I was trying to lose the 80 pounds I gained during pregnancy, I wasn’t motivated until my husband offered to buy me anything I wanted if I could exercise for 20 minutes per day for 100 days in a row. That made the difference for me. Now exercise is just a daily habit. What could you offer your teen to develop a life-long healthy habit?
Help your teen navigate the natural body changes and develop habits to support a lifetime of wellness through open conversation, a healthy environment, and the right kind of motivation.