Walking the balance beam—giving the best messages to your teen about diet and exercise

by Claire McCarthy on April 12, 2011

Sometimes, parenting can be like walking on a balance beam. You lean too far either way and, well, bad things can happen.

This is especially true when it comes to teaching your kids healthy eating and exercise habits. You don’t want your child to be obese—and yet, you don’t want to say things that might push them toward an eating disorder. Since both obesity and eating disorders are on the rise, this is a real issue for parents today.

It can be particularly tough when kids are adolescents. Their bodies are changing, peer pressure and hormones rule their lives, they are exploring their independence and their identities. An offhand comment can have unexpected consequences.

Sarah Forma, MD

I was talking about this the other day with a friend of mine from medical school, Dr. Sara Forman. She’s the director of the Eating Disorders Program at Children’s Hospital Boston, a primary care doctor and the mom of two teens. This is territory she knows well.

“You want to encourage healthy behaviors, but you don’t want to be too controlling,” she said. “Kids need some degree of guidance, but you need to know when to back off.”

She recommended a great book: “I’m, Like, So Fat!” by Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, PhD. It’s full of wonderful, practical advice (and it’s an easy read, which as a busy mom I appreciate). Neumark-Sztainer writes about what she calls the “Four cornerstones for promoting a healthy weight and positive body image in your teen.”

1.Model healthy behaviors for your children.

As the adage goes, children pay attention to what you do more than to what you say. If you tell your kids to eat vegetables and exercise but you never do, your kids won’t either. And if you talk a lot about dieting and complain about your body (or make comments about other people’s weight), you can’t be surprised if your daughter (or son) starts doing the same.

Claire McCarthy, MD

To do this well, parents need self-awareness. “We all have baggage,” Forman says. “The lens we see the world through has everything to do with our childhood and our own body image.” Parents need to be willing to take an honest look at themselves and how they feel about their bodies—and see how it affects what they say and do.

2.Provide an environment that makes it easy for your children to make healthy choices.

Keep fruit and cut-up vegetables in the refrigerator for easy grabbing. Be physically active as a family, and make it easy and fun for your child to exercise with friends (a basketball hoop in the driveway, volleyball net outside, a soccer ball by the back door). Keep the TV off as much as possible. Eat dinner together as often as you can—this can not only make a huge difference when it comes to healthy eating habits, but can lead to less depression, less substance abuse and better grades.

3.Focus less on weight. Instead, focus on behaviors and overall health.

In part, this is about talking about food and activity in terms of health and not in terms of whether it makes your child thinner or heavier. But this is also about helping your child really understand that there is way more to them than their appearance. “Take an interest in the things that your children do,” suggests Forman. “Notice their strengths. Try to help them achieve their goals.”

4.Promote a supportive environment with lots of talking and even more listening.

It’s tough being an adolescent (there isn’t enough money in the world to pay me to do it again.) Be there for your kid. Let her talk about what she feels. Family meals offer a nice opportunity for this, as do car rides (many of us spend lots of time in the car with our kids—we might as well take advantage of it!). “Right before bed is another good time,” says Forman. “Often kids are more relaxed and willing to talk.”

It’s important to remember that each kid is different; what works for one child may not work for another. And Forman encourages parents to ask for help. “You don’t have to wait until you are in crisis,” she says. “Talk to a friend whose judgment you trust, someone maybe who has teens. Get advice from your doctor or from a nutritionist. Talk to a psychologist or social worker—they may have ideas you just didn’t think of. It’s hard being a parent—we need all the help we can get.”

And that’s the other thing: cut yourself some slack. Nobody does parenthood perfectly, and some things are simply out of our control. We all fall off the balance beam sometimes.

All we can do, in this and everything else in parenting, is try our best—and love our kids.

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