Our 13-year-old is doing no exercise and eating rubbish all day long
Classmates have mentioned her weight to her and I am worried this is bothering her
Research shows that excessive screen use and poor sleep routines are associated with obesity and other health problems. So it is important to agree positive rules and routines around these with your daughter
Question: We have a great 13-year-old girl, but even though she is very popular, she spends most of her time in her room on her phone. She is overweight and I think this may be getting her down. She eats rubbish all day and does no exercise, even though I can see her weight gets to her. She did some sports before, but these have all gone by the wayside.
One of the big problems is that she won’t open up to us or tell us what she is thinking. If I mention anything about food or exercise she closes down even more. She’s in a strop with me at the moment as there are no treats in the house. I don’t know what to do to help her. How can I help her be more healthy and happy?
She is starting secondary school in September and I would love her to be more open with us before she starts as it will be a difficult time. Her classmates have mentioned her weight to her and I am worried that this is bothering her. Should we take her to see someone to help her talk and who should this be?
Answer: The teenage years bring lots of challenges both for parents and the teens. As they pull away from parents, relationships with friends become the priority but this brings the challenges of peer pressure, fitting in and self-consciousness about appearance and body weight. Nowadays, there are the particular challenges of social media obsession and increasingly sedentary and unhealthy lifestyles. At the start of the teen years, participation in sport can nosedive (especially for girls) and as their appetites increase with their growing bodies, unfortunately it is treats and unhealthy food that they can turn to. Childhood obesity and the resulting health problems are among the biggest challenges we face in society and it can really escalate in adolescence as teenagers can become more exposed to unhealthy lifestyles.
Adopt a non-blaming approach
Most people who are overweight feel they are to blame for the problem that somehow it is a sign that they are weak willed. However, most experts now agree that it is the unhealthy modern environment that we live in that is the culprit. Children are surrounded by and bombarded with advertising to eat unhealthy foods wherever they go. There are very few healthy options promoted in restaurants and treats foods such as crisps, fizzy drinks and chocolate are consumed as part of a daily diet. Coupled with increased sedentary lifestyles and large amount of times on screens these are the perfect conditions for obesity and health problems. As a result it is harder now for the current generation of children to adopt a healthy active lifestyle than ever before.
When you talk to your daughter about issues, acknowledge how much harder it is these days for everyone to eat well and be active. It can help if you can share your own struggles with diet with her so she that she can feel supported and not that she is not the only one.
Focus on family healthy goals
Rather than just focusing on your daughter, set a family goal around health that involves you, her father and any other children in the house. Indeed you can explain to her that you are cutting out the treats in the home during the week, to help you out as much as her (as it is impossible for anyone to resist eating them once they are there in front of them in the home). Good family goals include limiting treats in the home to twice a week, setting aside time for healthy family cooked dinners, and even doing a family walk together at the weekend.
Agree rules around screen use and sleep time
Research shows that excessive screen use and poor sleep routines are associated with obesity and other health problems. So it is important to agree positive rules and routines around these with your daughter. While every family has to decide the rules that work for them, examples of effective rules include no use of phones at meal times or after 8pm or no phone use in the bedroom. Take time to negotiate these rules with your daughter and see them as family rules that you are all striving for.
Help your daughter discover healthy passions
Try to help your daughter discover passions and interests that increase her activity and health. Could she be encouraged to restart some of the sports she has dropped or are there new active interests she could take up? There are lots of different options that she might like, from swimming to going to the gym to doing dance classes or to joining the scouts or a hiking club. Given her popularity, what are the healthy activities she could do with friends? One of the best healthy passions for your daughter might be to learn to cook healthy family meals. Could you involve her in this, perhaps by setting a family goal of taking turns cooking a weekly healthy family meal? You could consider doing a cooking class with her, which would give you a good way of staying connected with her.
Helping your daughter open up and talk
It can be a challenge to help teenagers open up and talk about sensitive issues (when you consider that they are at a stage of life when they are pulling away and becoming more private. A lot of it is about creating opportunities for chatting, while reducing the pressure on them to talk. Try to be around when they are more chatty (maybe late at night) or use one-to-one opportunities to listen such as when giving them a lift in the car. Sometimes it is important to raise concerns directly.
In my column next week, in response to another question, I will be describing different ways you can help young teenagers communicate and I will consider the issue of whether to take them to see a therapist when you are worried.