We’ve discussed the role parents should take in helping younger children lose weight and develop healthy eating habits, and, for parents, managing or supporting a child’s weight loss program is never an easy job, regardless of the child’s age.
But compared to helping older children and teens, weight management for little kids is a walk in the park–a brisk walk, perhaps–but it’s still not the heavy lifting of familial dietary change.
U.S. teens are the heaviest in the world, by a notable margin. We know our cultural habits have changed much in the last couple generations and kids that might once have walked to school are now on buses or carpools. Instead of running around and playing outdoors, they’re mostly parked in front of TVs and computers. And the adolescent age group consumes nearly two-thirds of the snack foods sold in this country.
And all this is to say nothing of the emotional stress and pressures older children and teens feel to fit in, be attractive and accepted. Overweight kids and teens have painful self-esteem issues associated with their body image.
So environment alone makes it a thorny enough problem, and when you add in a little pre-teen angst or adolescent rebellion, weight management for older children is indeed a challenge for families. But achieving healthy goals is possible. We see it all the time.
And we know that from our own experience in using a family-based approach to weight loss, where it’s the lifestyle that gets “fixed” and not the overweight youth. While not all overweight children have overweight parents, that is overwhelmingly so. We often see parents who profess not to be interested in their own weight, though they are very worried about their child.
But once they recognize that a collective approach is most effective, those parents can often use their genuine concern for their children as an impetus to take a greater interest in their own well-being, and in changing the lifestyle habits that are unhealthy for the whole family.
With younger children, parents essentially need to do the whole job, so much so that if it’s done subtly, a younger child might not even notice those changes. But walks might become a regular part of the day, sweets and treats become special occasion foods rather than daily indulgences.
But just try subtly slipping changes like that past the average 11-year-old. With older kids and teenagers, the parents are still crucial as models, but the kids themselves need to take some responsibility too, and not just as compliant participants.
In one recent study of kids in weight-loss programs, the parents were encouraged to practice an “authoritative” parenting style, in which they offered leadership and modeled appropriate eating and activity, as opposed to an “authoritarian” style–that old “do as I say because I said so” approach. We find that’s pretty ineffective, as a rule.
It’s best if older kids have some ownership of the decisions and process, because there”s plenty of evidence that if they have choices, they’ll make good ones.
Research on snack vending in high schools showed that when students were offered fresh fruit or other healthier foods, and bottled water instead of soda in those vending machines, they often took the healthier choice–and that’s without Mom looking over their shoulder!