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Kids Don't Want to Hear Weight-Related Comments, Says Survey

A new survey reveals how adolescents expect their parents to support them in countering weight-related pressures.

Body image concerns and disordered eating often emerge during adolescence as the brain continues to develop and a desire for social interactions and peer acceptance increases.

At the same time, the adolescent body undergoes rapid growth and weight gain. These changes typically deviate from body ideals that are enforced by the environment.

Parents' comments about children's weight and eating habits can be another source of body image concerns, even if they are well-intentioned, such as wanting kids to be healthy.

The new study, which appeared in the journal Body Image included 801 American participants aged between 14 and 24 from the MyVoice National Poll of Youth cohort. They answered at least one open-ended question via text message about how parents could support their kids through weight-related pressures.

Participants said parents should avoid making weight-related comments. Instead, they should be role models and teach healthy habits surrounding food and body at home.

Moreover, the participants indicated that parents should expose their children to a variety of different body shapes and sizes, debunk diet culture, and protect them from social media.

Studies have associated the use of social media, which often promotes impractical beauty standards, with higher levels of body dissatisfaction and dysmorphic concerns, defined as excessive preoccupation about physical characteristics perceived as defects.

Experts say it cannot be ruled out that using social media can increase the risk of developing body dysmorphic disorder in people with other risk factors.

The study authors emphasize that parents are in a unique position to help offset risk by removing themselves as a direct source of pressure and supporting their children through the pressures of peers and media.

Even good intentions can cause harm

Previous research suggested that 78% of adolescents report having experienced at least one parent comment, teasing, or trying to talk about their weight, shape, or size.

Parents often comment on their adolescents' weight or eating habits because they want their children to be at a "healthy" weight and believe in diet culture rhetoric that weight and health status are directly related. Some parents want their adolescents to look like the thin ideal.

Such comments — both positive and negative — have been shown to increase psychological distress and disordered eating behaviors, including secretive eating, overeating, and restriction.

Adolescents say talking about weight with their parents makes them embarrassed and upset while also increasing insecurities, self-consciousness, and discomfort.

What do experts recommend?

The American Psychological Association (APA) recommends talking with children and adolescents about overweight or obesity in a non-judgmental, non-stigmatizing manner.

The most effective and respectful approach to discussing weight focuses on improving kids' health. Instead of blaming children for their weight, such as saying that they lack "willpower," parents should work with children to develop healthier patterns of eating and physical activity.

The APA recommends telling children that weight is not who they are and reminding them that carrying around extra weight is not about how they look but how they feel.

Parents can emphasize that losing weight is not easy for anyone and encourage them to take specific actions that are easy to monitor and measure, such as the following:

  • Increasing the number of minutes being active in a day.
  • Increasing the amount of outdoor playtime and limiting screen time.
  • Creating family playtime.
  • Increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables a child eats.
  • Limiting the number of sweets, including foods and beverages, a child eats a week.
  • Increasing the number of meals that the family sits down and eats together.
  • Shopping for healthy foods together.

Approximately 14.7 million U.S. youths aged 2–19 years have obesity, which puts them at a higher risk of high blood pressure and high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, and breathing problems like asthma and sleep apnea.

Talking to your child about weight may be awkward, but necessary. Do it in a respectful manner, focusing on how weight loss can benefit their health, and lead by example.

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