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Exercise, diet and body image: Tackling tough topics with your teen

Last Modified: February 02, 2023

Family Medicine, Women & Children

exercise diet and body image2

This post was written by Andrew Piropato, MD, PPG – Pediatrics.

Today’s teenagers experience pressure from many sources - school, peers, social media and more. Despite the natural shift toward independence, teens still rely on their parents for support through these tumultuous years. So, this raises the question, how can parents help their teens with topics such as exercise, diet and body image? Let’s explore some common questions I often get asked as a pediatrician.

Question No. 1 – How will I know if/when my teen is ready to talk?

You may be eager to have an in-depth chat with your teenager, but that doesn’t mean they are ready to talk. They may not be interested in sitting down with you at the precise moment you had planned. Follow your child’s lead and look for openings to start a conversation. While nothing should be off-limits, they may not be ready to dive into a particular topic. When your teenager is willing to engage in a conversation, that’s an excellent sign that you’ve built trust and mutual respect. Your primary goal is to support your child and listen to their concerns.

The next time you want to chat with your teen, try using a few of these strategies to jump-start the conversation:

  • Find the right moment – Your talk will go smoother if you both are in the right frame of mind. Try to pick a time when your teenager isn’t stressed, tired, anxious, etc.
  • Choose a tech-free time – It can be challenging to talk when everyone is on their phones. Try to structure some unplugged time as a family each week.
  • Communicate without blame – Use “I” statements to take some pressure off your teen. For example, “I noticed you have been drinking more soda lately; can we talk about that?” rather than an accusatory approach, “You are drinking too much soda. You need to stop.”
  • Find common ground – Use the behavior or habits of their friends, family members or other role models as a springboard for your conversation.
Question No. 2 – How can I talk to my teen about body image?

Body image is a core part of everyone’s identity. It’s an important topic to discuss because negative self-perceptions can impact your teen’s mental health. Take weight loss, for example. We know that children with obesity experience stigma based on their weight. To avoid perpetuating that stigma, ask your child what terms they prefer that you use related to their weight. We know that children often have a preference (i.e., to avoid being called “obese”), so using the term they prefer is a way to communicate respect. Also, by emphasizing a goal of healthy eating and exercise instead of weight loss, you can help your teen develop good habits that will support them long-term.

Question No. 3 – What warning signs should I look for in my teen’s diet or exercise routine?

Throughout adolescence, it’s normal for children’s preferences and habits to change. If you notice troubling trends like sneaky or deceptive behavior revolving around food and exercise, the setting of specific calorie goals (unless recommended by a medical provider), or if either of these topics consumes a great deal of your teen’s time and energy, then it’s time to have a conversation. If you keep the discussion focused on supporting your child’s physical and emotional health, you won’t come across as overbearing or prying.

Question No. 4 – What topics should I avoid when talking to my teen?

No topic is off-limits. Parents should be open to discussing anything with their teen, no matter how uncomfortable it may feel. Avoid judgment when talking with your teen about sensitive topics. Remember, they are already under pressure in many other aspects of their life, so they may need help sorting out the confusing messages they get from their peers, social media and other sources. By continuing to be a steady, supportive presence, you can keep the lines of communication open about sensitive topics like diet or exercise.

Question No. 5 – When should I speak to the pediatrician about my child’s diet or weight?

If something about your teen’s physical or emotional well-being doesn’t seem right to you, trust your instincts as a parent and bring it up with your child’s pediatrician. Your pediatrician can help you determine if the behaviors you are observing require specific types of care.

Question No. 6 – Do teens need specific vitamins or supplements during puberty?

Pediatricians commonly receive questions from teens and parents about diets, supplements and vitamins. Generally, most pediatricians don’t recommend these items for otherwise healthy teens. Even for athletes, a well-rounded diet with healthy proteins and plenty of fruits and vegetables is all they need for normal growth and development.

Question No. 7 – Are vegetarian or vegan diets safe for teenagers?

Teens may explore vegetarian or vegan diets, and parents often have concerns. However, with careful planning, teens can maintain excellent nutrition and health while following a plant-based diet. If you’re unsure, discuss it with your child’s pediatrician. They can help answer any questions you may have that are specific to your teen.

Final thoughts

Remember, children are always watching. Parents sometimes underestimate the influence they have on their teenagers, but rest assured, your child is watching what you do and listening to what you say, even though they may act indifferent. By modeling healthy habits, parents can teach teenagers how to maintain those behaviors throughout their lives.

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