It may seem like normal sibling rivalry to hear brothers and sisters tease each other about their weight. Parents may even tease a little. How many people have been at a friend’s home and heard them make a comment to their child such as ‘should you really eat that?’ or ‘you look like you may be gaining a bit of weight’ to a teen who looks healthy to you? Commenting about weight seems like the norm in our society. Why shouldn’t it be? We are constantly bombarded with images of unrealistically proportioned models and ads for dieting products. Magazines are all retouched and Hollywood celebrities wouldn’t dream of being photographed without makeup.
The thing is, all of this negative commentary can impact our health. A recent study of teen girls found that parents’ negative talk about weight was associated with their children having unhealthy and extreme weight control behaviors. This study looked at 356 teen girls from 12 different high schools. Some of the unhealthy weight control behaviors that teens engaged in included skipping meals, smoking cigarettes, taking diet pills or laxatives, vomiting and binge eating, as well as going on a diet.
In the study, parents’ talk about weight included encouraging a teen to diet, a parent talking about his or her own weight, and a parent talking about his or her diets to lose weight or keep from gaining weight. These behaviors were also associated with the unhealthy weight control behaviors in their teenagers. The strongest associations between a teen girl having unhealthy weight control behavior and parents actually involved parents who dieted and moms who spoke negatively about their own weight in front of their kids.
This study also looked at family teasing about weight. The researchers found that girls who were teased by family members had higher body mass index (BMI), higher body dissatisfaction and more unhealthy and extreme weight control behaviors. Teasing by family members was most strongly associated with binge eating (binge eating is eating so much that a person would be embarrassed if someone saw them, or feeling a loss of control over the amount of food that they eat).
Now the researchers didn’t find that the family behaviors explained all of the unhealthy outcomes in the teens who participated. They thought it was possible that outside influences, like media messages, also play a role in teen girls’ self-esteem and eating patterns.
So what can parents do to help their teen feel satisfied with their body and to support healthy eating behaviors? Well remember that your teen pays attention to what you say and try to avoid making negative comments about your body or theirs on a regular basis. Be a positive role model and discuss healthy eating habits like having 3 balanced meals a day and regular snacks. Talk to your teen about the media and the images they see and hear about. Include conversations about healthy body types and avoid reinforcing messages for quick weight loss (such as fad diets and dieting pills). If teasing is occuring from other family members, stop the behavior and do not encourage it to keep going. Most importantly, tell your teen you love them often! Encourage them to be active every day in fun ways and set a positive example of someone who is living a healthy lifestyle.