You’ve probably heard adults complaining about the “quaran-ten” or even the “quarantine 15″ — a quippy way of acknowledging the weight gained while we’ve been mostly isolated from the rest of humanity during the pandemic. I’ve heard similar sentiments from my friends and family and seen them sprinkled throughout my social media feeds. But it’s not just adults who are noticing changes to their bodies during this time — teenagers may also be experiencing weight gain and some associated self-consciousness right now.
As most of us are adults here, we know that teens require more calories as they’re still growing than what an adult with similar stats would. I’d like to use this post as a starting point for us as a community to promote and encourage HEALTHY and SUSTAINABLE habits for these teens, without shutting them down, downvoting them or suggesting deficits that are only appropriate for adults.
Anecdotally, clinical psychologist Dr. Rebecca Katz says she and her colleagues have also seen an increase in returning clients and parents who are concerned that someone in their family is focusing too much on body image right now. That could be because of actual weight increases, or due to the way our social interactions have changed during the pandemic.
“I think there’s a lot of time being spent with less actual social contact and much more focus on social media and images on the internet,” says Katz, who specialises in the treatment of eating and weight disorders. “Even if it’s people you know, those images are highly curated.”
In other words, in pre-pandemic times a teenager may have been used to seeing all those selfies taken at just the right angle and with the most flattering lighting, but then went to school the next day and saw all their classmates out in the wild and not always looking like the most perfectly photogenic versions of themselves. Right now, that reality check isn’t an option for many teens.
Let’s talk about growth
Before we discuss when you should be concerned or how to support your child if they are feeling self-conscious about their weight, let’s talk about what a child’s growth should actually look like — which has nothing to do with the numbers a body mass index (BMI) calculator spits out for you based on their height and weight.
Remember when our kids were babies and they spent their first year of life growing at a mind-boggling rate, while we cheered on each new roll of baby fat? Something similar happens as puberty approaches, Katz says.
“Kids can grow up to [15-20 cm] or 18 kg during a puberty growth spurt,” she says. “That can be a little bit alarming at first, both for the parent and the child.”
What’s less important than how much they grow or what a BMI calculator says (and Katz strongly recommends ditching them completely), is that they are growing fairly consistently along their own personal growth curve. A child who has been in the 95th percentile since toddlerhood is likely to continue to grow faster in height and weight than many of their peers — because that is how their body naturally grows. And Katz compares a growing child’s body to the building of a house from the foundation up.
“Our kids can’t grow if they haven’t gathered enough material on their bodies,” she says.
Focus on a well-rounded approach
Whether your child has voiced concern over their weight or not, it’s important to model a well-rounded approach to eating; Katz says she even prefers to de-emphasise “healthy eating” in favour of an “all food fits” mentality.
“There’s no horrible outcome if you eat a potato chip,” she says. “Each type of food has a place in our life.”
That means you can model a balanced intake of different types of food, talk about food as fuel for all the things our bodies do and, whenever possible, eat meals together as a family so parents can model those habits. And ditch any and all talk of “calories” in your home.
Get your body moving
Sure, some people exercise to lose weight. But regular exercise is also good for our overall physical and mental health — and that’s why we should be encouraging and supporting our kids’ desire and need to move around more.
“Parents can say, ‘We gotta get out of the house,’” Katz says. “They can encourage this by being really upfront and saying, ‘I’m feeling a little cranky; we need to get out of here.’”
And moving around together as a family — by hiking, biking, taking walks around the neighbourhood or even having an epic water fight — also gives you an opportunity to model safe and moderate exercise by pacing yourselves, hydrating and taking breaks.
If teens do come to you with concerns
It’s good to be doing all of these things all the time; but what if your child still comes to you and says they feel self-conscious about their body or want to lose weight? Katz says to respond first the same way you would to any concern your child brings to you — with empathy.
“Your heart would go out to them, so spend some time empathising,” she says. And then make a renewed commitment to all of the above — family meal times, talking about food as fuel for all the important things our bodies do, modelling that moving around is important for our overall health and ensuring well-rounded meals and snacks are available for our kids. The best thing we can do here is model, model, model.
“The strongest intervention is that familial component,” Katz says.
In the end, if they simply won’t take your word for it, setting up a time for them to talk to a trusted paediatrician may help them gain the perspective and objectivity they need.
When should you seek outside help?
If you suspect there is any sort of self-injuring happening, or you have other safety concerns, you should seek immediate help. Other indications of disordered eating or body image concerns can include things like skipping meals or snacks or a resistance to eating meals. (Katz says lunch is often the first meal to go because it’s the least obvious, given that parents and teenagers often don’t eat lunch together.)
Increased physical activity coupled with anxiety can also be a red flag. Katz says comments like “I have to go out and run,” or “I don’t feel right because I didn’t go running today,” can be indications that their anxiety level around physical activity has increased.
In these cases, a good first step is a well visit with their paediatrician, who can do a weight check and compare where a teen’s weight is now with how their weight gain has trended in the past. A doctor can also do some lab work and note a couple of key stats, such as heart rate, to identify a baseline and check their overall health.
From there, your paediatrician may refer you to a psychologist or social worker. If you explore this option, Katz cautions that the professionals you contact should be specifically trained to treat eating and weight disorders; a general therapist will not have enough knowledge in this specific area to help effectively, she says.