Talking to your Teen about Weight in a Healthy Way

  • Young men's version of this guide

What is weight stigma? 

Weight stigma is treating or perceiving a person in a negative way because of their weight, body shape, or size. It can be experienced by people of any age or gender in a variety of settings such as at school, home, work, and healthcare offices, and can be demonstrated by peers, teachers, family members, healthcare providers or others. Someone might stigmatize another person based on their weight due to the assumption that the person’s weight is due to laziness, lack of willpower, or non-compliance with diet and exercise suggestions. Being judged based on weight and body size has harmful effects on physical and mental health, and can lead to development of poor body image, disordered eating behaviors, and other harmful outcomes such as avoiding school or the doctor’s office.

Why is weight stigma important when it comes to teens?

Adolescents are at an especially high risk for experiencing weight stigma or teasing and its negative effects. It is normal for teens to gain weight during puberty, so the teenage years may be the first time teens become aware or concerned about their weight. In addition, teens are especially susceptible to peer and media influences, which can further contribute to weight stigma. Media sources such as TV, websites, and phone applications often depict an “ideal” body that is not realistic and portray people living in larger bodies as “wrong” in some way. There are even weight loss applications, sites, and products geared towards children providing the message that weight loss is something they should strive for; weight loss for most adolescents is inappropriate as they are still growing.

Scientific research shows that teens who think their weight is too high have fewer healthy behaviors such as healthy eating and physical activity. Teens who feel they are overweight are more likely to diet than those who think their weight is right for them; they often adopt extreme measures such as skipping meals or fasting, behaviors that are typically not sustainable and can lead to overeating and further weight gain over time. Weight stigma can lead to a cycle of disordered eating and poor body image. These negative health behaviors often continue into adulthood and beyond.

Shouldn’t I talk to my teen about their weight if I am concerned?

Ask yourself why you want to talk to your teen about their weight in the first place. Is it because you are concerned about their health? Just as weight is affected by much more than just calories and exercise, health is affected by much more than just weight. Try to take weight out of the equation altogether. Instead, focus on health issues that pose either current or future risk, and behaviors that can mitigate them. For example, if your child’s doctor has told you that they are at risk of developing diabetes, you can have a conversation about behavior changes that can help prevent diabetes such as eating healthier foods, decreasing portion sizes, and being physically active.

Genetics, hormones, and growth all play a role in how much we weigh, which means people don’t have as much control over weight as they might think. One thing you can control is the way that you speak to your child regarding weight. The language parents use when communicating with teens about weight can have a lasting effect on their mental and physical health, and on their relationship with food. Studies have shown that when families communicate the need for healthy behaviors to improve overall health rather than to change weight, kids have better outcomes.

How can I talk to my teen about weight without causing harm?

Try to keep weight, shape, and size out of the conversation, whether positive or negative commentary. Applauding a teen for losing weight can be just as harmful as chastising a teen for gaining weight. Avoid associating your teen’s weight or eating habits with personality traits and celebrate their strengths regardless of body size. If you want to empower your teen to be healthier, emphasize health, not appearance. Also, try to set a positive example. Do not limit any foods or food groups from your own intake (unless you have an allergy or intolerance) or follow a “fad diet”. This helps to promote a positive food environment. Research repeatedly shows that going on a ‘diet’ not only does not work for weight loss, often causing weight to actually increase over time, but is also harmful to a person’s mental health.

Instead of Saying This: Try something like this:
You need to lose weight in order to be healthy.  I am concerned about your health and would like to talk about steps we can take as a family to be healthier.
You should go on a diet. You should enjoy all foods but if you’re interested in learning more about healthy eating we could talk to your doctor about meeting with a Registered Dietitian.
You should eat less. I am concerned that you seem to be eating past the point of fullness or for a reason other than hunger, would you like me to help you find someone to talk about your feelings and emotions?
You eat too many bad foods. Let’s make sure we have some treat foods in the house so you don’t feel like you have to sneak around when eating. Can we find some items we agree on to add to the shopping list?
Don’t you think you’ve had enough to eat? Now that dinner is over would you like to play a game or go for a walk with me?
If you keep eating like that you will get diabetes. Based on the doctor’s recommendation I thought we’d try some new foods as a family, would you like to help pick some recipes?
I’m being bad and cheating today by eating this delicious food. I enjoy the taste of this food, it reminds me of a time when…
You are not eating enough. Let’s enjoy dinner together tonight.
Wow, have you lost weight? You look amazing! How are you feeling today?
You look like you’ve gained weight. How are you feeling today?
You need to exercise more to lose weight. I feel strong and healthy after moving my body, would you like to do some activity together or find a sport or exercise that you like to do on your own?
Let’s try to burn off the calories from this food by exercising Let’s move our bodies in a way that we enjoy today as act of self-care.

What if my child wants to lose weight and asks me how to do so?

 It is great your child feels comfortable coming to you with their concern. This question may come up for many reasons and is important to address because of the potentially harmful outcomes. If your child asks you about weight loss, turn this question into a conversation about how your child feels about their weight and health. You can dig deeper into this question by asking why your teen wants to lose weight. For example, are they being teased about their weight? If so, isn’t the person doing the teasing (not your child’s body) the one in the wrong? Did they watch something that made them feel like they had to lose weight? Are they feeling nervous about a specific future disease?

Defining health with your teen can be helpful, reminding them that “health” is not synonymous with weight. Discuss healthy habits you can adopt together, such as grocery shopping, finding new recipes, cooking or finding exercise that is enjoyable. Do not put your teen on a diet or suggest they monitor themselves using a scale. Avoid comparing your teen to others, especially siblings. Remember, everyone is different, even those in the same family.

As a parent, you have the opportunity to model a healthy relationship with body image for your teen. Model eating a variety of foods, body acceptance, self-care and self-compassion when possible. Furthermore, pay attention to how you comment about others in front of your teen and stand up for your child if they are being teased about their weight. Reach out to your child’s Doctor or a Registered Dietitian if you would like additional resources and support.