Parenting Strategies Can Help Overweight Teens Make Healthy Choices
MADISON - Parents may tell kids to 'eat healthy' but then confuse them by eating at fast-food restaurants.
Welcome to the world of overweight teens, where mixed messages and a lack of parental follow-through appear to contribute to the difficulties families have in dealing with their teenagers' weight problems.
As the number of overweight teens grows to near epidemic proportions nationwide, researchers are studying ways to help teenagers get their weight under control.
University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Nursing Professor Susan Riesch and her co-investigators are studying whether authoritative or "balanced parenting" can offer useful strategies for helping overweight teens control their weight.
Balanced parenting is a child-centered approach that encourages children to be independent but still places limits on their actions. Until now, it's never been studied as an effective parenting model for overweight teens.
"I want to help parents follow through with their kids, whatever it is," Riesch says. "In partnership with their kids, and in ways that work, and that don't destroy their relationship, that don't cause arguments."
Results from focus-group research with children and their parents in the study suggest four key areas on which Riesch believes families should focus:
- Mixed messages
- Food and exercise as battlegrounds
- Social support
Parental mixed messages are a major barrier to helping children make healthy choices in a consistent way.
"The message parents give may be clear, but the behavior is contradictory," Riesch says. "One mother reacted to her child refusing breakfast by stopping for fast food on the way to school. That was pretty appalling, and even the mother who relayed the experience was appalled, saying 'I just can't follow through.' "
Food choices and fitness decisions were also described as "battlegrounds." While parents were trying to meet goals set by health care providers, the kids didn't really care about the goals in the first place, and the parents were doubly frustrated that the kids didn't care.
One effective technique parents used is problem-solving - reflecting on the problem, thinking through what kind of process might work to engage their child, and then trying it. One mother signed herself and her son up for organized weekend walks.
"That's how you get them going-starting them in some of those kind of walks and walking with them," the mother recalls. "And, you know, at the end it becomes something that you're doing together that's kind of fun."
Finally, teens in the study reported an overall lack of social support for their weight-loss efforts. Riesch says this is clearly an area that needs further work and exploration, especially because even within the family, support can vary.
"The parents and youth we interviewed indicated a lack of social support for families," she says. "This leads us to suggest proposing school support groups or other community groups."
"There are a number of key factors that can help teens make lifestyle changes, both at home and when they're at school or out in the community. While there are no simple fixes, these four focus areas are a good starting place."
Date Published: 11/19/2009