Figuring out what to say to a child or teen about being overweight can be perplexing. We want out children to love to eat. We want our children to love their bodies. We want our children to be of healthy weight. We want to avoid ever making our children feel shameful about how and what they eat.

It can be a challenge to figure out what to say when we worry our children may be overweight or at risk for being overweight. How do we talk with them about eating well without making them feel any frustration/shame/overwhelm about their body? There are roughly 7 million children and teens younger than 19 years old in the US that are of unhealthy weight or obese. In Washington, 23% of 10th graders (15 to 16 years old) are overweight or obese. That’s nearly one-quarter of teens who are at one of their most vulnerable ages. So lots of parents may find themselves wanting to support different choices with eating and activity and not know quite how.

Adolescent expert Dr. Cora Breuner is a specialist who works with teens who need extra help getting to a healthy weight. She recently joined me on a podcast to discuss talking about the difficult topic with your teen. Specifically, Dr. Breuner shared tips on how to approach conversations with your teen about their weight, and common confusions and excuses for overeating.

 Portion Size and Emotional Eating

As a parent, it’s your job to nurture and nourish your child. – Dr. Breuner

I love that quote! There is a lot of guidance on the correct portion size you should be providing for your child. When in doubt, ask your teen’s pediatrician and they can help decide the right amount. If your teen is typically hungry after eating a meal, remember to remind them to:

  1. Eat slow or try to eat more slowly than they have.
  2. Chew all of your food and wait to eat another bite until done (I find this challenging w my boys!)
  3. Drink water with all of your meals. I often advise families to have teens have a glass of water before the meal, too.
  4. Wait before you get seconds. Just wait 5-10 minutes and see if the urge for more fades as the full stomach catches up.

Additionally, a lot of time there’s confusion between hunger and fatigue, which can lead to emotional eating. If there is a lot of whining and crying around food, it’s typically not hunger, but another emotion – most likely fatigue. It’s important in these scenarios to help your child or teen identify that emotion and point out that it is different than hunger and they can address it in a different way.

Additional information, resources and education is available through the Seattle Children’s Obesity Program.

Avoiding Shame and Blame when Talking with Your Teen

Clearly one of the most important things to do when talking to your teen about their eating habits is to create an environment of non-shaming. If you see them overeating, sneaking food into their room or find wrappers under their bed, first make sure that you as a parent are calm and emotionally ready to talk with them. Dr. Breuner also says:

  • Do not push it up into the ozone in terms of reaction.
  • Do not blame them for trying something out.
  • Do approach the situation as an opportunity to dig deeper – “I noticed these wrappers under your bed, which makes me think you may not be getting the right amount of food at meal time. Let’s try brainstorm how not to have wrappers in your bedroom.”
  • Do give an alternative – “Next time you feel like a candy bar, how about you have half only” or “Maybe next time you can have carrots instead of candy. What else can you eat with the carrots that will make you feel as good as the candy bar – peanut butter or something sweet.”

Using Positive Messages

  • Use neutral words instead of fight/flight words: “That’s curious…” or “That’s interesting that you chose that…” or “I know its inconvenient for you to be hungry right now, but…”
  • Take away discussion around their weight and size. Instead focus on them as a person or something they put a lot of time/energy/passion into – say something positive about how beautifully they put their makeup on or the bow in their hair or their attitude or how smart they are.

5 Reminders for Parents when Discussing Healthy Weight

  1. It’s our job as parents to nurture and nourish our children – they look to us for the food they will eat. Research does show if you provide healthy choices at meals, your children will gravitate towards those healthy choices at home. Your job is provider. Their job is eater — they determine what and how much they eat of what is offered.
  2. Dr. Bruener reminds, “what you do and what you say will not put your teen in a downward spiral of life threatening eating disorder.” There’s no data or researching showing that a conversation about supporting your child in their overweight will drive an eating disorder.
  3. Open a dialogue with your teen if they’re still hungry after meals. Their feeling of hunger may be something completely different. Or it may be that the way meals and snacks are happening isn’t ideal. Making changes may boost confidence in both you and your teen on how they’re eating.
  4. Avoid shame and blame for overweight or overeating whenever you can. Focus on behaviors and choices that may make your child feel great.
  5. Use positive messaging about who they are as people and not about what they eat or what their body looks like.