With the holidays right around the corner, many college students will be coming home to spend time with their families. For some parents, this may be the first time you’ve seen your young adult since they left for school, so there’s a chance they may look a little different.
You’ve likely heard of the “Freshman 15,” when a student goes off to college and gains 10-15 pounds, usually from a combination of cafeteria-style food, an excess of alcohol, and a lack of sleep. On the other hand, some students may lose weight from general nerves, skipping meals, or simply walking around campus. But, what’s considered “normal” and what’s worth noting? And what do you do about it?
Dr. Deb Kennedy, the CEO of Culinary Rehab, a consulting firm that focuses on culinary literacy, says the first thing to understand is there’s no “normal,” when it comes to weight loss or gain. “The Freshman 15 is just an indication your kids have the independence to make their own decisions about food,” says Kennedy. Dr. Natasha Burgert, a pediatrician in Kansas City, Missouri adds, “Parents need to expect change. We’re reflective of the environment we live in.” For most kids, college may be the first time they’re completely in charge of their diet, so it’s not surprising there may be a bit of an adjustment.
Still, knowing this may not ease your worries. Should you say something? How do you know when you should? Kennedy warns parents, “Direct conversation can make matters worse. If you know your young adult has gained (or lost) weight, so do they. When it’s brought up, it can become a shaming issue.” So, what’s a parent to do?
Observe, observe, observe!
According to Burgert, the best way to know if a weight change is worth mentioning is by observing their habits. “Traditionally, parents are poor judges of their children’s weight,” says Burgert. “It’s important to remember a change may not be concerning.” Instead of focusing on the change itself, gear your attention toward what could have caused the change. For example, was your student an athlete in high school? They may just be adjusting to life without built-in activity. Or maybe your freshman has a busy schedule and has altered their eating habits. Observations in behavior are often more telling than talking about weight, as you can note firsthand what they’re eating and whether it’s too much, or not enough.
Focus on “tangential issues.”
While observation is important, you don’t have to be totally hands-off. Kennedy suggests parents can also work on “tangential issues.” For example, invite your child to go on a walk with you or encourage them to help you prepare meals. Suggesting activities gives you an opportunity to spend quality time together, while equipping your child with the exercise knowledge or culinary literacy they may need a refresher on. In addition, the time spent together may present a chance for your child to open up to you if they are having any troubles.
Ask (the right) questions.
If you still would like to explore the topic with your young adult, but are struggling to bring it up, try to avoid explicitly asking about their weight. Instead, inquire about their health and lifestyle choices. Burgert suggests asking simple, straightforward questions: “Are you staying healthy? Have you been doing any activities? What do you do in your free time?” as these may be the most revealing. In addition, Kennedy adds you can approach it from a stress perspective, asking: “Are you okay? Do you feel okay? Is there anything I can do to help?” Having a better understanding of your child’s daily habits will give you a stronger grasp on whether there’s a reason to be concerned. Another way to introduce the topic is by framing it from a point of personal experience. For example, Burgert says something as simple as, “Hey when I was in college I was so stressed I forgot to eat… does that happen to you?” could prompt a more in-depth conversation.
Still feel like you need to say something? Kennedy says, first and foremost, ask for permission to talk about their weight. Simply saying, “I’ve noticed you’ve gained (or lost) weight. Can we talk about it? Are you worried?” will allow for a more open conversation, as your child may be less defensive. If they aren’t comfortable talking to you about it, ask if they would rather discuss it with someone else.
If the conversation severely upsets your child, there could be reason for concern. As Burgert says, “You may have hit a hot button.” If this happens, it’s best to drop the subject in the moment and revisit it when everyone’s cooled down. Don’t worry if it takes time, Burgert says, “There are rare exceptions when kids are in active crisis and immediately need attention. However, if a child is really in a crisis, it’s usually obvious. In this case tell them, ‘I really think we need to see someone about this.’”
It can be difficult to navigate your level of involvement when your child is legally an adult, but if you think there’s an issue, you can still take action. While the doctor will not be able to share confidential health information, Burgert assures parents they can still talk beforehand about any concerns, as it may help the doctor know what to watch – and what to ask. In addition, if your child has had extreme weight gain or weight loss, Kennedy says you should look into your family’s health history which can make your kids more susceptible to certain diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. Kennedy suggests being straightforward, telling them, “This runs in my family, which is why I’m concerned.”
Want to get your teen’s friends involved? That can get tricky. While Burgert suggests it can be helpful to lean on a support system, both experts agree it can become a “shaming issue” when friends are recruited to keep track of eating habits. Instead, the best option is to look to an authority figure, whether it’s a resident advisor, or a sorority house mom, to keep an extra eye on your student and their health.
Try not to worry!
Although this may be the hardest piece of advice to follow: try not to worry. Sometimes, stress can create a bigger issue out of nothing. Burgert wants parents to keep in mind “not everything is a crisis.” She continues, “Part of growing up is figuring out who you are and what you value. Just because they may have gained (or lost) weight, doesn’t mean it’s an emergency.” Kennedy agrees, and warns parents not to put their own issues with weight onto their child.
We all want the best for our kids – for them to be both happy and healthy. Speak actively and openly with your child, listen to what they have to say, and remind yourself: it’s not abnormal to be a little different.