Here's what a psychologist—and the American Academy of Pediatrics—want you to know.

By Amanda MacMillan
Updated January 08, 2020
Credit: Getty Images

How should parents talk to their teenagers about weight? They shouldn’t, says a new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

More specifically, they shouldn’t focus on weight itself—the dieting, the calorie counting, the numbers on the scale—and instead encourage kids to live a healthy lifestyle. This advice, says the AAP, can help prevent eating disorders and weight problems on both ends of the spectrum, from obesity to unhealthy weight loss.

But if topics about weight are off limits, what, exactly should you be talking about? And what if kids bring up their weight themselves? For advice on how to handle these sensitive situations, we turned to Leslie Connor, PhD, a counseling psychologist in Wilmington, Delaware who specializes in healthy parenting skills and treating eating disorders in adolescents. Here’s what she suggests.

Keep their age in mind

Discussing healthy eating with an 8-year-old shouldn’t be the same as discussing it with a 16-year-old, says Connor. “Younger children don’t have the brain capacity to understand all the grey areas when it comes to gaining or losing weight,” she says. “And teenagers are probably dealing with more pressure from their peers, which is an important factor to consider.”

Parents also have much more control over what and how much their younger children eat. Discussions about healthy eating, then, can be centered around what’s being served at meals. They should focus on the positive, too: Instead of talking about the bad things that can happen if kids eat the “wrong” way, says Connor, remind kids how healthy foods are important for the brain and the body.

Teach self-acceptance

If kids do seem to be developing an unhealthy relationship with food or with their body, says Connor, parents should first and foremost help them build up confidence and self-esteem.

“It’s okay to address the fact that, yes, it’s hard to feel uncomfortable in your own body,” she says. “But we want them to get to a point where they can say, ‘This is the body I have, and I want to work with it to be healthy’—not hate on it, because nothing good will come of that.”

Don’t encourage dieting

Most parents know that teasing kids about their weight can lead to unhealthy behavior. But they might not think twice about supporting their daughter’s announcement that she’s going on a diet to lose 10 pounds. Research suggests, however, that these actions could have a similar effect—even if your intentions are good.

“We now know that when you focus on the numbers, you’re virtually pushing a child in the same direction as teasing or bullying would,” Connor says. “That’s a big eye-opener to a lot of parents.”

Parents should also be wary of older kids and teens who seem concerned with calories or quantities, or who want to use apps to track their meals, she adds. “Those aren’t exactly diets, but they could certainly help children become hyperfocused on the numbers and start thinking about food in a really black-and-white, good-and-bad way.”

Start with their feelings, not yours

For older children who are making decisions about food for themselves, Connor recommends using a technique called motivational interviewing: Ask them for their own opinions, rather than telling them yours.

“You can start with something like, ‘How are you feeling about your lifestyle? Do you feel like you’re keeping a healthy balance?’ It’s important to get them thinking about it in these terms, because without their desire and momentum for change, very little is going to happen,” she says.

This can also help you frame your discussion so they’ll be more receptive. “I could give a lecture on how fast food is bad, but I may not need to do that if my daughter tells me she already has mixed feelings about going there all the time with her friends and is never sure what to order,” says Connor.

On the other hand, she says, you may need to take a different approach if you have a kid who only wants to eat chips and drink soda. “You could start by asking whether they’re concerned about the way they’re fueling their body, and how it might affect them down the road.”

Make sure they have outlets for their emotions

Teenagers often develop eating disorders—whether they’re overeating, restricting, or throwing up afterward—as a way to cope with the intense emotions they’re experiencing, says Connor. So it’s important that parents pay attention to these feelings, and help their kids find healthy ways to channel them.

“As parents we might tell them to knock it off, stop crying, get a hold of themselves—and certainly, setting limits is reasonable,” she says. “But that doesn’t teach coping skills or help children learn how to calm themselves down when they feel intensely hurt or upset about something.”

Set the right example

When Connor counsels teens with eating disorders, the trigger she recognizes most often is a parent’s unhealthy relationship with food or exercise. “It’s not uncommon for a young female, or male, to say, ‘My dad is a compulsive exerciser,’ or ‘My mom skips meals all day and only eats dinner,’” she says.

It’s not enough, she adds, to encourage healthy behavior in your kids if you’re not doing it yourself. “Kids notice,” she says, “and it’s hard to teach what you don’t know.”