We Think Our Teen Needs Exercise

My husband and I need some advice for our children, ages 8 and 16. They are both overweight and don't get enough exercise. I cook healthy meals, but they eat their junk food when given the opportunity.

When I talk to my son, the teen, about working out, he doesn't want to and says not everyone is addicted to exercise as we (his parents) are. He also has very flat feet and orthodics, so running and hiking are not good choices of exercise. We encourage him to bike and roller blade, but he is not getting enough to burn away the extra 30lbs. He says he doesn't have a problem with his body, that I do. I love him and worry about the long term health risks.

My daughter is only 8, and so far she is on the same track, I find this very difficult to overcome without destroying their positive self images.


Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

Your son appears to have healthy self-esteem. And a mind of his own! He is not afraid to express individuality, which is on target for his healthy development as a teenager in your family.

Consult your pediatrician regarding other possibilities for weight gain due to an imbalance in metabolism, such as thyroid problems, or other deficits in nutrition which give rise to sugar intake. Assess whether overeating masks depression. Does he have a healthy social life? If no medical or psychological reasons exist, then accept your son's boundaries.

Rest assured that the love and acceptance you have given both of your children equip them with the capacity to slim down when it is their choice to do so. Talking and educating them about nutrition and in general expressing your concern for their well-being in this area is natural and useful to a point. But a persistent negative focus on "controlling" their food intake can become dangerously invasive, particularly for teenagers whose development requires separation.

Consider what being overweight means to you. Are you in conflict regarding your own weight? Do you seek to control calories, or in other ways find yourself significantly focusing on food on a daily basis? What is your fear about being overweight? What does it mean to you that your children weigh more than you want them to weigh? Does food symbolize love in your family? Discuss these questions with your husband. Attempt to understand the emotional meaning of food in your family life.

Part of parenting is to know when to "let go" of control and trust your children to make their own choices. It is possible that you have overly focused on food intake, including making "healthy meals" to the point where your children experience a loss of control over their own bodies. Although well-meaning, this does not allow children to develop their own dietary regulation. If this was the case, your children's extra eating outside of your "meals" could possibly represent an area of autonomy.

Evaluate whether you dominate food, the shopping of food, the making of food or any other aspect of your family's regulation of food. Allow your children the freedom to create their own meals. Although 8 years old may be a bit young for your daughter to make a meal for the family, your son is clearly old enough to make one dinner a week. This could be a part of his weekly contribution to the family. Or he could do the grocery shopping, contributing to the list of what the family needs. Your job as a parent is to gradually hand over responsibility for control to your children as they grow. Has this been done in the area of food?

If you have held tight reins on food regulation in your household, expect that autonomy for your son will probably include a few outrageous purchases in the beginning. Do not overreact! Accept his autonomy and trust in his ability to develop in this area. What do you have to lose? Your ability to relinquish control may allow him the room to take control.

Your daughter is younger, and may respond to helping pick grocery items or being "in charge" of a very simple meal that she can serve to the family occasionally. When families become overly focused on food, it can sometimes be beneficial to shift the responsibility towards self-regulation. And this does require you to step back and accept their choices instead of lecturing them.

Perhaps you have seen your son successfully regulate other areas of his life. Bedtime is a useful example. Many teenagers stay up until all hours of the morning the first time they can! But after awhile, the freedom gives way to consequences of sleep deprivation and reason prevails. This is a part of learning self-regulation.

Consider these possibilities and determine with your husband what, if any apply to your situation. Then consider what life would be like to accept your son's boundaries about his body. Accept that he is in charge of regulating his diet and his exercise at this age. Affirm to yourself that you have taught him enough about these areas, to let him flounder and eventually fly on his own. Like the first time he rode a bicycle, do not be concerned that he falls. Realize that your son will develop his own sense of balance independent of you.

Rest assured that you have given him a great education about health, which is embedded in the memory cells of his brain for retrieval. I was continually amazed by my son's apparent indifference to my "lectures" in adolescence, only to hear my words repeated in his own decision-making years later! No doubt your efforts will be utilized in the future when his energy is no longer set on "reject" mode. But for now, practice letting go and accepting his autonomy.

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