Your teenager is a different person than she once was. As an adolescent, she may not be capable of assuming adult responsibilities quite yet. As she has grown and matured, she’s now much more able to understand the implications and consequences of being overweight. You can reason with her much more effectively. As a result, you should address the issue of obesity differently than you once did.
Here’s an example of how your approach might change. When your teenager was younger, did you sometimes use rewards to motivate her to make health-promoting changes? As a school-aged child, did she respond to your offers of stickers or a few more minutes of TV watching if, in return, she agreed to spend an hour playing on the playground with friends? As effective as that strategy may have been, it probably won’t work anymore. Yes, perhaps a younger adolescent (13 or 14 years old) may be willing to change her behavior if you offer her small amounts of money in return (face it—stickers just aren’t going to work at this age!). Yet by the time she’s 15 years or older, you need to shift gears. When her weight is concerned, appeal to her sense of reason. Help her understand the social and health consequences of being obese in a world that’s often unfriendly to heavy people.
For instance, if your youngster is 15 years old, you might ask her, “What do you think will happen if you just keep gaining weight?” Don’t expect her to respond by saying, “Well, I might get diabetes or high blood pressure, and I don’t want that to happen.” However, she might open up and begin talking about the way overweight students are teased at school. Or she might describe how hard it can be for heavy kids to keep up with their peers in physical education classes. Like all teenagers, she’s also probably conscious of and concerned about her body image, and she knows what classmates might be saying about the way she looks. Those kinds of situations might motivate her to change in ways that will allow her to effectively attack the problem of excess weight.
In the process, let your adolescent know that despite her growing independence, you’re still her parent and you’ll still be there when she needs you. You might say, “Let’s continue to work on your weight together. We can still go on family hikes on the weekends. We can still go on bike rides. I’ll continue to prepare nutritious meals when you’re home, and there’ll be plenty of healthy choices in the refrigerator for snacking. I’m not willing to completely back away just because you can make a lot more decisions on your own now.”
At the same time, let your teenager know, “I’m always available to talk with you about any problems you may be having with food away from home—maybe bad choices you’re making in the school cafeteria or at friends’ houses.” Make suggestions, gently offer advice, but also give your teenager some space to make choices on her own, and let her know that you trust her to make good ones. Sure, there will be times when she doesn’t make the best decisions, but at her age, putting more control in her hands works better than saying, “Here’s what you need to do—turn off the TV and go outside right now!” or “I don’t care where your friends like to go—you’ve got to stop eating at fast-food restaurants!”
Keep the dialogue open with your youngster. Ask questions like, “What’s been the hardest part about managing your weight this week?” “What can I do to help?” “What can we think of together that will keep you moving in the right direction?”
Explain to your teenager that, in a sense, you’ve become something akin to her coach. Remind her that even the most elite athletes need coaches, and it isn’t a sign of weakness or failure. Don’t offer advice at every turn, or she’s liable to shut the door without even listening. Just let her know that you’re available to talk and give guidance when she wants it. By all means, create a home environment that’s conducive to success.
The bottom line is that your role is changing, and that means posing some questions to yourself, too. For example, are you asking your teenager to make changes in her eating or activity level that you’re not doing yourself? Are you sabotaging her efforts to eat healthy by keeping junk food in the pantry or baking holiday cookies and leaving them out where she can’t help but be tempted?
Are you framing your comments to your youngster in a supportive manner? For instance, rather than asking, “Why are you so lazy when it comes to exercising?” you could say, “Why don’t we get the entire family to go play tennis this afternoon?”
One additional thought: Even though your teenager is much more capable of taking the weight issue into her own hands, she can still use all the support that’s offered. So you and your other family members should join forces to become your teenager’s most loyal support team. Let your adolescent know that the entire family will provide what she needs to help her make wise decisions about her weight. Sometimes, teenagers may act as though their friends are much more important to them than family. You and the rest of your family will continue to be much more indispensable to her than she’s sometimes willing to admit.