This is an excerpt from the book, Weight Loss Confidential: How Teens Lose Weight and Keep It Off – And What They Wish Parents Knew, which discusses how they did it and what families can do to help. The author, Anne Fletcher, interviewed and surveyed more than 100 teens who had lost weight in healthy ways, some as much as 100 pounds, as well as many of their parents. Many of them came from overweight families and had been heavy for a long time. This book tells how they were able to turn things around and make important lifestyle changes.
The Teens’ Advice to Parents
I asked the teens for their advice to parents of overweight teens about what helps and what hurts. Here’s what they told me.
- John W. says, “Teenagers are rebellious, and the last person they want to listen to is a disciplinarian parent laying down the law about ‘this is why you need to lose weight.’ If you talk to teenagers on a friendly level, a lot more about the problem will be revealed.”
- McKenzie K. advises, “Don’t tell teens they’re fat or lazy. They probably hear that enough from peers and things like that bring down their self-esteem. You can’t be motivated to do something if you don’t feel good about yourself.”
- Aaron T. says, “Don’t make overweight kids feel singled out at the dinner table, like by having meals that are different from everyone else’s. Use your child as an opportunity for the whole family to eat better. Also, especially in the early stages, don’t make it widely known that your child is trying to lose weight. Let people notice it on him or her or hear it from your child’s mouth. It’s not something that needs to be broadcast to the world. It can be a very stressful time, especially if the weight is not coming off right away. So cut your child some slack.”
- Emily B. notes, “Be supportive of their choices. And if they mess up, don’t get angry. Help them learn how to handle it next time. Make sure to talk to teens about what they’re going through, because it’s hard, and parents are easier to talk to about weight than friends are most of the time.”
How Not to Talk to a Teen
Steven Berg-Smith, M.S., coauthor of a study on how to motivate teens to improve their diets and a health psychologist who owns the California-based company A.I.M for Change, urges parents to avoid the following pitfalls that can generate resistance and entrench a teen in a no-change position.
- Using a judgmental or confrontational approach: patronizing, dismissing, or minimizing feelings
- Trying to “talk sense” into them by using restrictive language (“you have to;” “you can’t;” “you need to;” “you should”)
- Trying to be too helpful and asking too many questions
Mr. Berg -Smith points out that when a teen offers a hopeful sign that he or she might be interested in changing, it’s best to use restraint, not to pounce. For instance, if a teen says, “My pants are too tight. I look really gross,” don’t respond with “Let’s sign you up for the YMCA weight program.” Rather, say, “Do you want to talk about it?” (My son Wes says, “Let them know you’re willing to talk then back off.”) When you see signs that a teen is trying to change, it helps to focus on successes and efforts versus what’s not happening. For instance, if a teen comes home from school and goes for a long walk, then sits down and eats a bowlful of buttered popcorn, say something positive about the fact that she took a walk and restrain yourself from mentioning the popcorn. He adds, “Teens are more motivated by what they hear themselves say than by what someone else tells them, so let them make their own arguments for lifestyle change and ways of achieving it.” So if a teen expresses an interest in starting an exercise program, rather than jump in with all of your ideas about what type of exercise is best or how to start out, ask what types of exercise he has considered and how he thinks he might go about getting started.