There are more overweight teens and older kids in the U.S. than ever before, and their numbers are growing. It’s not just about numbers on the scale either. Plenty of skinny or average sized older kids and teens have unhealthy eating and activity habits as well.
Later we’ll look at how you can start the food, weight and activity conversation with an older kid or teen, but first it’s important to look at why these conversations are failing to happen in the first place, and reasons why this is an important issue to bring up.
Why have the conversation?
Although it’s tough to bring up weight, food and activity with older kids and teens, it’s important that you find a way to do it. Not only do you want your child to be healthy, but research shows that kids also want to be fit and healthy and they need parent support to do so. Below are other reasons why you, as a parent, need to be proactive about this situation.
- Current research shows that if we don’t change our eating and activity habits, more than one in five American children will be obese in 2020.
- Since the 1970s, obesity rates have more than tripled among children aged 6–11.
- 18% of teens (kids ages 12-18) in the United States are obese while another 15%+ are considered overweight or on their way to becoming overweight.
- Many weight advocates feel that “healthy bodies at any size” should be on the agenda for America. While it’s true that weight does not dictate health, it’s also true that excess weight is really linked to countless health problems for kids and teens. In fact the most recent research shows that 23% of all overweight teens are prediabetic or diabetic, while 49% of overweight teens and 61% obese teens have one or more cardiovascular disease risk factors.
- Overweight and obese teens face many unique health problems that younger overweight kids don’t.
- If you think food and exercise habits are hard to change in teens, imagine how it gets even harder to change your habits as you get older. Now, not later is the time to focus on changing habits.
- Teens who try to lose weight alone, go about it incorrectly. Research shows that teens who realize they’re overweight or inactive, often try to lose weight or become active but use unhealthy tactics to reach their goals. Although older than younger kids, teens still need parent support in order to develop healthy habits correctly.
- Older kids and teens, both those who are at a healthy weight and those who are not, don’t get enough activity. Screen time is king among kids these days and research shows most older kids and teens don’t even get the minimum amount of exercise or activity they need to stay healthy.
What’s holding parents back from discussing weight, activity and food issues?
Action is seriously lacking when it comes to changing eating and activity habits of older kids and teens. This happens for various reasons, such as…
Parent denial: Parent surveys and research show that many parents are in denial when it comes to overweight kids. Research shows 83% of parents say their kids are at the right weight or “Average” even if their child is clinically overweight. When it comes to their own kids, often parents think issues such as belly rolls, excess weight and a total lack of activity is perfectly normal.
Teens are in denial: Studies show that overweight teens seriously underestimate their weight problem. Research shows that many teens who are clinically overweight feel that they are actually at an ideal or decent weight. In this case, even if a parent isn’t in denial, it may be hard to reach out to a teen who thinks they’re perfectly healthy. Research shows that teen denial usually happens because many of a teens peers are overweight and inactive too – when being overweight and sitting all day is the norm it becomes harder to notice when there’s a problem.
Your child is not overweight: If your child is an average weight or even skinny, you may think conversations surrounding food, weight and exercise are moot points. However, all kids need support from parents in order to learn how to eat well and get enough activity, regardless of weight.
Lack of information: Research shows that doctors are reluctant to discuss weight with patients, including young patients. Plus, we live in a super-sized commercial world that pushes huge portions and screen time vs. healthy activities. Many parents simply don’t have the right tools at their disposal to deal with unhealthy eating and activity problems.
Guilt: Some parents feel guilty bringing up weight and food, especially if their own habits aren’t perfect. For example, it’s hard to tell a kid, “Hey, quit eating fast food and get active” if you’re eating fast food and not getting any exercise. This is a valid excuse, but it’s also a great chance to institute change across the board. In fact, most research shows that when it comes to unhealthy older kids and teens, whole family lifestyle changes work better than just focusing on the child.
No one wants to promote physical or emotional disorders: When it comes to discussing food and exercise with teens, many people jump to food disorders – for example, “I don’t want to bring up weight, because maybe my child will become anorexic.” It’s a fair conclusion, but not entirely reasonable because unhealthy eating habits and zero exercise are also serious health issues, just like eating disorders. If you don’t bring up weight and activity, you may have to discuss diabetes, heart disease and other tough health topics with your kid instead. Also, there are ways to talk to people about weight that don’t necessarily lead to eating disorders.
Teens may be more sensitive: Kids at any age can exhibit behaviors that make talking to them tough, but teens are at an age where discussing health topics is especially difficult. In fact, one teen survey showed that teens say it would be terrible and embarrassing to have to discuss weight issues with a parent. If teens don’t want to talk, it makes it that much harder to start the conversation.
It’s too hard: Talking about food, weight, exercise and other health issues can be hard for parents. In fact, surveys show that parents consider food and weight issues so difficult to bring up that they’d rather discuss drug use, smoking and sex with their kids. In many cases, parents avoid weight, food and activity issues simply because it’s easier than addressing them.
What can you do?
It is hard to discuss these issues with older kids and teens, so honestly my best advice is to start this conversation when your kids are young.
That said, plenty of parents do not start this conversation when their kids are young, which results in a “What do I do now” situation once kids are older. The most important thing to know is that it’s not too late now. If your kids are older or teenagers, it’s still very important to talk about weight, food and activity, even if it’s the first time you’ve done so.
Part of being a parent is making sure your kids have the tools and support they need to eat well and exercise for the rest of their life. Your kid deserve to know what calories are, how food portions work, how excess weight is linked to health problems and why an active lifestyle is a healthy lifestyle. It’s not the responsibility of your child’s school or her peers or anyone else to teach your child about healthy eating and activity – it’s your responsibility, no matter how difficult.
Coming up, we’ll look at some different ways you can start the healthy lifestyle conversation with older kids and teens.