Over 60% of parents make comments to their teen about their weight – but it’s not just critical or negative remarks, according to adolescents surveyed in a new study from the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy & Health. In fact, positive weight comments from parents were reported to be more frequent than negative parental comments about weight.
Using a national online panel, researchers surveyed 2,032 adolescents and 1,936 parents to learn about the types of positive and negative comments that parents make about their teen’s weight, how teens perceive these comments, and whether these communication patterns vary across sex, race/ethnicity, and weight status.
“We know that many parents talk to their teens about their weight, but we don’t know enough about what parents are actually saying or how teens feel about it,” says Rebecca Puhl, lead author of the study and deputy director at the Rudd Center. “Adolescence is a critical time for developing positive body image, and body weight is often an emotional and sensitive topic. The ways that parents talk about their teen’s weight can have a lasting impact.”
The researchers examined key aspects of parent weight communication in racially and ethnically diverse mothers and fathers and adolescent girls and boys, across a range of body sizes. Study findings, published in the journal Nutrients, show that both mothers and fathers commonly talk about weight with their adolescent daughters and sons, and include both positive and negative comments.
Key findings include:
- 61% of parents reported making comments to their child about their weight, with 16%
of parents expressing these comments often.
- About a third of teens said that their fathers (31%) and mothers (39%) commented that
their health is more important than their weight.
- Positive weight comments from parents were more frequent than negative comments,
but both were commonly reported by mothers, fathers, and adolescents across sex,
race/ethnicity, and weight status.
- Compared to girls, boys reported more frequent weight comments from mothers and
- Hispanic/Latinx parents and adolescents reported talking about weight more often
compared to White and Black/African American parents and adolescents.
- Weight comments from parents occurred most often for adolescents with higher weight
and adolescents actively trying to manage their weight.
- Parent-adolescent weight conversations occurred both in-person and through texting,
and across daily life situations like grocery shopping, shopping for clothes, and when
talking about healthy lifestyle behaviors.
The majority of adolescents surveyed reported that their parents make body-positive remarks to them, such as communicating the importance of body acceptance and treating people of all body sizes with respect. Yet despite these positive parental messages, many adolescents said they never want their mother (44%) or father (63%) to talk to them about their weight.
Adolescents offered circumstances that would increase their comfort level in having these conversations with parents. Many teens (44%) indicated that these conversations are okay if they bring it up first. About a third of adolescents reported that it is okay for their parent to talk about their weight in a supportive way (32%) or if their parent first asks them if it’s okay to talk about it (31%). A quarter of adolescents said they want their parents to keep these conversations private and to use words to refer to their weight that they feel comfortable with.
“Our study findings have important implications for health professionals working with families to promote supportive communication at home,” says Leah Lessard, study co-author.
“Helping parents distinguish between positive and negative weight comments and understand perspectives of adolescents can provide concrete steps towards more supportive parent communication,” adds Puhl.
This study was supported by a grant from WW International Inc. Study co-authors include Leah Lessard of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health at the University of Connecticut, and Michelle Cardel and Gary Foster of WW International.