The Adolescent

Recap: A child is born with strong attunement to cues of appetite, hunger and fullness, and will therefore naturally eat well if raised in a supportive food environment. A mother’s role is to nurture this inborn ability by creating the right environment. Beginning with infancy, emotional development evolves in stages, and understanding these stages can help a mother nurture her child physically and emotionally so her child can thrive. In the following articles, we describe a healthy parent-child dynamic as it applies to ideal feeding, so that the mother can support her child’s natural ability to eat and grow well.

Your teen wants to diet.

Her clothes don’t fit the way she wants them to. Her friends are thinner. Her sisters are thinner. She feels jealous of her popular neighbor… who is thin. She projects all her insecurities onto her body, and believes that if she is thinner, she would be prettier, happier, and socially more desirable. Is this mindset harmful or helpful? Should your teen hold on to these beliefs, or would she be better off letting them go?

Just a century ago, it was considered prettier to be larger. Then, 1960s media began featuring underweight stars instead of those of realistic size. This proved toxic to America’s body image.

During this same time period, health advocates began to worry about declining health and increased obesity in America. They emphatically stated that excessive processed foods combined with decreased physical activity was making Americans fat. One effort implemented to fight the “obesity epidemic” was to calculate a BMI, and instruct the population to lose weight if their BMI was in the overweight or obese range.

Calculating a BMI has an essential flaw. Although declining health correlates with increased weight, the increased weight is merely a symptom, and symptoms are non-specific. It may indeed be unhealthy, as in the case of the patient who naturally has a small frame; however, due to overeating, poor food choices and inactivity, he gains weight, placing his BMI in the overweight category.

But many times, there are other factors that contribute to a larger body which are not necessarily unhealthy, as in the patient who simply has a genetically large constitution or is a muscular marathon runner. In such cases, the BMI being overweight is not a symptom of poor health. In a similar manner, three patients can have a headache. One may be dehydrated, one may be sleep deprived and the third can have a brain tumor. Just as the headache alone does not tell us what is going on, BMI measurements alone are not a reliable indicator of one’s health.

There are unhealthy people in the normal weight category and healthy people in the overweight category and finally, there are unhealthy people who, even after they improve their lifestyle and health, will remain overweight. This being the case, BMI measurements can be misleading and focus on body size instead of health. Furthermore, well-meaning but misled clinicians can make people unnecessarily uncomfortable and ashamed of their bodies by focusing on BMI.

The weight loss industry, which was another devastating blow to our body image, sprouted in the early 1950s as a result of media influence and medical attention to BMI measurements. Targeted marketing techniques glorified thin bodies and led people to believe they could change their body size with the right “diet plan.” In reality, restrictive weight loss programs rarely produce long-term benefit. Most participants in these programs regain all the weight or regain more weight than they had lost. Sadly, the weight loss industry has caused the public to feel increasingly unhappy with their bodies.     

Body dissatisfaction is associated with negative health behaviors. No one takes great care of something they hate. If your teenager appreciates her body, she will be more inclined to treat it kindly. This leads to healthy, sustainable lifestyle choices, initiated from a place of self-care and self-respect.

The developmental stage during the adolescent years is to develop identity. The adolescent will gradually form her own ideas and develop opinions about herself as she develops a healthy self-image. Since emotional and physical well-being are deeply interwoven, the adolescent who is not accepting of her body size has difficulty developing identity and self-acceptance, since she pursues a thinner self. She might feel compelled to lose weight due to societal or parental pressure.

In our “weight obsessed culture,” we are led to believe that being thinner is better and that weight loss through calorie restriction is noble. This belief system has made it common for people to project their insecurities onto their bodies and “diet” to feel better. For example, a teen might feel excluded from a social group and truly believe that if she had the “right” shape, size or appearance, she would “fit in.” This girl might try to pursue a weight loss plan, and if the parent acts supportive of this, she may be reinforcing her daughter’s unhealthy notion that her body isn’t good enough.

Every parent I have ever met cared deeply about her daughter’s sense of self-worth and was highly devoted to helping her child. I’ve witnessed highly busy mothers shuttling their daughters to weekly weight-loss counseling appointments with hopes of being able to fulfill her daughter’s wish to be thin and presumably improve her self-confidence—it seems like such an obvious solution! However, I’ve seen the fallouts of this approach for the reasons mentioned above, and I urge parents to dig deeper to understand their child and their true helping role.    

The parent’s jobduring the adolescent stage is to be accepting of her child’s size and figure. If her child expresses negative thoughts about her body, the parent should explore why her daughter feels this way, and help her address any underlying insecurities. A parent should also reflect on the messages she gives to her child. For example, if a parent often criticizes her own body for being too large or raves about how her thin child “looks good in everything,” her children will quickly internalize that thin is ideal, and large is imperfect. A larger child might question her parent’s love and acceptance of her. A child’s quest to be thin might reflect her desire to please her parents or win their love.

Consider the messages your adolescent might be getting from her peers and family members. As a parent, you cannot control what messages your child picks up from outside the home, but you can absolutely buffer those influences by creating a safe haven of healthy, positive messages from within the home. If your adolescent says negative comments about her external appearance, choose a response that will neutralize the message rather than ignite it. For example, a parent can say, “It’s common for weight to be distributed differently at your age.”

Ideally, a parent should model self-acceptance. She should avoid making comments about her own or others’ weight and promote the idea that everybody carries beauty and is worthy of respect. If the parent struggles with these concepts herself, she may need her own support to address these issues. At the very least, she should measure her words carefully when speaking to her adolescent child.  

Perhaps most importantly, remember to demonstrate value of your child regardless of her body size. Acknowledge what you love about your child based on who she is as a person, instead of focusing on how she looks. Show appreciation for your child’s inner qualities such as kindness, sincerity, humor or insight. Every child has an inner diamond. External qualities come and go, so relying on those for self-worth is risky. Externals exist and need tending to, but it’s what is on the inside that truly counts. Deep appreciation for your child’s inner qualities will create a sense of self-worth that runs deep and holds strong. Your adolescent can achieve greatness with the body she was blessed with, and you can provide the support to make that happen!

In our final article, we will describe positive ways to promote nutrition and fitness in your adolescent that align with good self-care without feeding into any negativity, as described above. We will also address common weight concerns in relation to health and wellness.  

Brochi Stauber is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist whose goal is to make healthy living a lifestyle reality for individuals and families. She combines clinical nutritional knowledge with an understanding of the behavioral science of food, enabling clients to sustain healthy habits. Contact her at 732-731-9340 or satisfinutrition@gmail.com.

Shira Francis is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Chicago, IL. She provides guidance and counseling in relationships and self-development. Contact her at 773-971-3388 or shirafrancis@gmail.com.