It is common for tweens and teens to gain weight leading up to and during puberty, so it is not surprising that this particular time in your child’s life may spark a lot of concerns about their weight. I know this was true with my own three tween/teen daughters and frequently came across it during my 15 years as a kids’ health coach. Their bodies are changing quickly and they may be looking quite different from their peers. This is very clear if you have visited a classroom of 11 year-olds; the differences in body size, shape, and maturation can be striking. For parents, it can be challenging to know when a few extra pounds could be a problem, and if and when you should talk about it with your child.
My two eldest daughters have always had very different body types that were made more evident by the onset of puberty. My 17-year-old was as skinny as a rail until she was 15, while my 15-year-old struggled with rapid weight gain and signs of puberty at 10. While they had different reasons, they were both frustrated and angry. But to be honest, I was much more concerned about the rapid weight gain experienced by my middle daughter. So was she. After lots of tears, talking, and hugging, we figured out what information and resources she needed to gain control of her health and how I could best support her through this difficult adjustment.
Knowing your child’s BMI percentile can provide a frame of reference to determine whether or not your child’s extra weight is unhealthy. Doctors rely on the BMI (Body Mass Index) percentile for children and teens because they are still growing. If your child’s BMI percentile is above 85%, then they are considered clinically overweight. To calculate your child’s BMI, go to the CDC BMI Calculator for Kids and Teens.
Regardless of whether or not your tween or teen falls into the clinical range for overweight, if they are expressing concern about their weight, it’s important you as a parent feel comfortable discussing it, and that you avoid some common pitfalls. Here are some suggestions on how to talk to your tweens and teens about their changing bodies.
Be on high alert! Are they being teased at school? Is shopping particularly upsetting because nothing fits? Are they asking you if they are fat? Are they resentful of a skinny sibling? Try to avoid the parental instinct to comfort by telling them these things are not true. Instead, listen and find opportunities to discuss an action plan.
Stay positive, nonjudgmental and compassionate. This is actually much easier said than done. Despite our best intentions, we parents tend to focus on the negative. It is easier to point out the behaviors that we are worried about than all the good things our kids are doing. The problem is that our comments about what they are eating and how much time they sit in front of the TV make them feel judged which will likely cause them to keep doing those things we don’t want them to do. Do your best to stay positive, keep negative thoughts to yourself, and ask them how they want you to support them!
Focus on health. Steer the conversation away from weight, which is secondary to health. It’s not about how they look or how their friends look. Instead, focus on how they feel by drawing attention to healthy behaviors that make them feel good. Do certain foods make us feel energized or tired? How do I feel after I exercise? Discuss the physical and mental benefits of healthy habits such as improved concentration, decreased feelings of sadness, and increased self-confidence. And parents, don’t talk about your own weight!
Create a healthy home environment. Do your part and make it easy for your family to choose healthy options by removing tempting treats from the house and keeping the healthy choices readily accessible. This means a little extra work to wash, peel, and cut the fruits and veggies we want our kids to eat, but it is worth it when you see the plate of veggies or bowl of grapes disappear. If you don’t want them eating donuts, don’t bring home the donuts!
Be a good role model. Make sure you are practicing the healthy behaviors you want your children to adopt. Like it or not, kids do as we do, not as we say. With teen drivers in my house, I better not talk on the phone in my car if I don’t want them to! Take this opportunity to evaluate your own habits and decide what you can work on to model healthy behaviors for your family, such as creating your own exercise plan or cutting back on sugary drinks.
There is no question that watching our kids turn into young adults is a particularly emotional transition on many levels, and seeing them struggle with weight and body image issues, too, is heartbreaking.
I will never forget when Molly, a young tween I was coaching, told me she was scared to death of middle school. I, like her mom, thought it was the number of kids she didn’t know or the extra homework. So I was a little surprised when she finally told me the real problem. It was PE; she was scared to change clothes in the locker room.
When I finally understood her true fear we were able to come up with some creative solutions that allowed her to look forward to middle school instead of dread it. But this story reminds me of two things: 1) that the worries of our tweens about their bodies are very real and powerful so we must take them seriously, and 2) as a parent, I need to truly listen and try to understand how they are feeling so I can provide the positive love and support to empower them to make confident, healthy decisions.