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photo by Lexie Jannie

REAL help for teens struggling with eating, activity or body image

January 6, 2021
By: Dr. Jodie Richardson, Clinical Psychologist

It’s very hard as a parent to see your child struggling with their eating or body image. We live in a sedentary society that facilitates weight gain and rewards thinness, which contributes to a lot of eating & body image issues for teens. Unfortunately, to add to this, in the last 10 months with the pandemic and resulting sense of loss of control over our lives teenagers may be more susceptible to eating disorders and other mental health disorders, like depression, that affect their daily eating and activity habits as well as their self-worth. As parents, we want our kids to be healthy, body and mind, but sometimes we feel like we have little control or influence. We want them to learn how to take care of themselves in a healthy way, without developing an unhealthy preoccupation with their eating or body image. So, how can we help our teens?  

What we do with our kids is much more important than what we say to them if we want to have a positive impact. Saying “I love you” is not as powerful as showing them we love them by spending time with them. Saying “exercise is important” is not as powerful as showing them that exercise is important by taking the time to do it with them. What’s more, saying negative comments like “you’re lazy” or “look what you’re doing to family mealtime” can be harmful and have a lasting impact on your child’s identity, actually reinforcing this view of themselves and resulting in more of the behaviours you are trying to help them stop.  

Let’s use the acronym REAL to help remind us how we can provide REAL help to our kids who might be struggling with eating, activity or body image issues.

1) R is for Role Modeling:

  • Model healthy eating patterns. This does not mean being overly preoccupied with healthy foods but simply eating regularly, incorporating a wide variety of healthy foods and showing your kids how to enjoy pleasurable foods. When you have a piece of cake take your time to be present and enjoy it with them.
  • Model healthy body acceptance. Try to show your kids a positive attitude towards your own body. Help them see that changes in our bodies over time are normal. Seeing you accept your body changes will help them think more positively about their own body changes, especially during puberty.
  • Model healthy activity habits. Don’t just encourage your children to do physical activity, be a role model by doing it with them. Make physical activity part of family fun

2) E is for Environment. Set up their environment to help them as much as possible:

  • Make access to healthy foods readily available. Have a variety of healthy snacks and meals on hand and, if possible, prepped and ready to go.
  • Prioritize family meals. Participation in family meals is related to a number of positive outcomes, including healthier diet, less unhealthy weight-control behaviours, less unhealthy behaviours like smoking, alcohol and drugs and less depressive symptoms in teenagers.
  • Facilitate access to physical activity by doing it with them. Invite them to join you for a walk, a run, skating, tennis, biking, soccer, whatever you can enjoy together.

3)  A is for Active Listening.

Be there to listen and support when your child wants to talk about their eating or body image Empathize with them and reflect back that you understand how hard it is for them. If your child talks about feeling fat, find out what’s really going on. Are they being teased at school? Are their friends making comments about being fat that are rubbing off on them? Are they feeling insecure and so they think losing weight would make them feel better? Listen before trying to fix. Often in listening we can help them come to their own solutions.

4) L is for Less Focus on Appearance.

Encourage your children to develop healthy habits for the purpose of taking care of their bodies, not for the purpose of appearance. Establish a zero-tolerance policy for negative body talk in your home. Avoid making weight-related comments as much as possible about yourself or others and don’t make weight-related comments directed at your children. Help your children develop an identity much larger than physical appearance. Focus your positive feedback on other aspects of their identity like skills, traits, hobbies, and interests.

Although we think that as our kids reach adolescence, they don’t care about what we think anymore, they do. We do have the power to be a positive influence on them!


(1) I’m, like, SO fat! Helping your teen make healthy choices about eating and exercise in a weight-obsessed world. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, PhD. Guilford Press. 2005.