According to the Institute of Medicine, Committee on Prevention of Obesity in Children and Youth, overweight and obese adolescents have an increased risk for physical comorbidities, including Type 2 diabetes and negative psychosocial consequences stemming from the stigma associated with being overweight.
Parenting an adolescent in general is a challenge but add to it the difficult issues faced by an overweight or obese child and this is a time that a how-to book would really come in handy. Unfortunately, each child is different and there is no manual to guide parents through the maze; or is it the haze?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that about 28 percent of adolescents are overweight. This means that one in every five parents of a child age 10-19 is considering how to approach their adolescent about this issue.
According to a new study released in the November/December 2012 issues of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, creating a healthful home environment, modeling healthful behaviors, and providing encouragement and support to adolescents for positive behavior changes may be more effective than communicating with adolescents about weight-related topics.
Investigators from the University of Minnesota were well aware of the challenges associated with parenting adolescents in general, and were interested in identifying potential targets for intervention. They felt it was important to be able to identify issues faced specifically by parents of overweight adolescents. So they posed two questions to the parents of 27 adolescents:
1. What issues do parents of overweight adolescents face?
2. What advice do parents of overweight adolescents have for other parents?
Issues identified by parents included difficulties in effectively communicating with their adolescent about weight-related topics, perceived inability to control the adolescent’s decision about eating and physical activity, concern for the adolescent’s physical and mental well-being, and feelings of personal responsibility for the adolescent’s weight issues. Parent advice suggestions for helping overweight adolescents included the importance of modeling healthful behaviors, providing a healthful home environment, and providing encouragement and support to adolescents for positive behavior change.
Shira Feldman, registered dietitian and researcher states, “Parents have an important role in helping their children and adolescents to adopt healthful behaviors and it can be challenging to know how to involve parents in interventions for adolescents because of issues related to developing autonomy and increasing independence. Parents of overweight and obese adolescents often find themselves in a dilemma.
“On one hand, parents may be concerned about their adolescent’s health, the psychosocial stigmas, and the negative physical consequences associated with being overweight or obese. On the other hand, parents also recognize their adolescent’s need for autonomy. Thus, parents may struggle with what to say or do to best help their adolescent manage his or her weight.”
What is the bottom line for parents when talking with their overweight teen? According to Kerri Boutelle, professor in pediatrics and psychiatry and lead investigator states, “In terms of ‘talking’ about adopting more healthful eating and physical activity behaviors, it is important for parents to remember that their adolescent could have a negative emotional response, for example sad or angry, when questioned about their weight. In the current study, and in other studies, parents were aware of the psychosocial effects of being overweight.
“Therefore, exploring other methods of addressing weight issues besides just focusing on weight loss may be needed when working with adolescents, such as being fit and physically active, or eating for health.”
Adolescents are not going to focus on the health issues of being fat. What is of concern to them is how they are perceived and accepted by their peers. So lecturing about the potential for health problems down the road will have little effect. So what is the solution?
Be supportive. Whether a child or an adult, the person knows they are overweight, and constant reminders usually has a negative effect.
As a parent, don’t make negative comments about the way you look or your weight or that of others. Your children incorporate your ideas in how they think as they grow. If you are always “on a diet” chances are your child with believe she needs to be as well.
Without nagging, encourage physical activity. Make it a family affair. Request rather than demand that your child join you in a walk. The recommendation is at least 60 minutes of physical activity daily for children ages 6-17.
As a family prepare more healthy meals. Grocery shop together. Try out new recipes. Eat together at home as a family as many evenings as possible. Never use food as a positive reinforcement with your children.
Set guidelines for the amount of screen time allowed by your children. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours a day of total screen time.
Make sure your family starts each day with a good breakfast. Breakfast doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Whole wheat toast and peanut butter with a glass of low-fat milk is quick and easy.
Focus on gradual changes and the importance of forming lifelong healthy habits. Small steps reap big rewards.
Georgia Clark-Albert is a registered dietitian and adjunct nutrition instructor at Eastern Maine Community College who lives in Athens. Read more of her columns and post questions at bangordailynews.com or email her at GeorgiaMaineMSRDCDE@gmail.com.