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Is your child overweight? Get in shape together!

Do your children — and yourself — a favor by sharing a diet and exercise program, says "Today" parenting expert Dr. Ruth Peters.
/ Source: TODAY

Q:  My 15-year-old daughter is 5-foot-4 and 144 pounds.  I think of her as stocky, but she feels as if she is obese.  It seems like she’s always been about 10 pounds overweight and I know that kids make fun of her.  She’s constantly talking about how fat she is and how difficult it is to find clothes at the mall, but I still see her eating a lot of junk at home as well as more than one portion at dinner.  I don’t want to give a lot of attention to this problem, but she’s constantly talking about it.  Should I ignore the problem and let her just work it out or should I make her try to lose weight? 

A:  To a 15-year-old, being 10 to 20 pounds overweight can be a mortifying experience.  Although your daughter may look just a little stocky to you, most likely she’s going to school with girls as thin as toothpicks, which only accentuates the problem.  Not helping her self-image is a culture so thin-oriented that it’s difficult for a teenager, especially a girl, to psychologically survive adolescence in one piece if she feels unattractive.

That said, she is overweight, which is important to deal with, if only from a physical wellbeing point of view. By 15, kids usually don’t just “drop the baby fat.”  It’s something she’s going to have to work on by both diet and exercise.  Most of us have been through diets for many years and realize how difficult they are to maintain and how easily the pounds return.  We’ve also accepted the fact that it’s not just dieting that’s important, but setting up an exercise program along with it. 

Here’s my strategy for your family:

1: Go on a sensible diet. The first thing that I would do is to get her involved in a medically approved dietary program, such as the many offered by local hospitals.  Also consider a program such as Weight Watchers, which offers encouragement from other participants.  In addition, it’s often easier for a child to stay on a diet if somebody else in the family is also on the plan.  If it is appropriate, you may wish to go to the meetings as well as follow the nutritional plan yourself. 

Meanwhile, it’s very important that you rid the house of inappropriate snacks.  You may be surprised how much junk food has accumulated and how your lifestyle allows high fat foods.  The other members of your family may grumble initially, but will soon accept fruit for snacks if you explain to them that none of you need to be tempted by cookies and ice cream.

2: Get some exercise.  Many kids enjoy going to a fitness center with a friend or even a parent.  Again, if this is something that you can fit into your life, it will probably help both of you.  Getting into a workout routine and sticking to it may be difficult at first, but once it becomes a part of your life you may actually miss it when you cannot go.  If you can’t afford the time or expense to join a fitness center, try getting into a walking routine with your daughter.  Not only is this exercise excellent in terms of cardiovascular fitness, it gives the two of you plenty of time to talk.  This will take a commitment on your part – we all know the things that can crop up to interfere -- but if you stick to it, you and your daughter should see results fairly quickly.

3: Reward her for her efforts.  As soon as you see a drop in clothing size, take her to the mall and purchase a new shirt or pair of pants.  She’ll feel terrific about her success and will be even more motivated to continue her efforts if she sees that a new wardrobe can slowly be attained.

Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and regular contributor to “Today.” Her most recent book is "Laying Down the Law:The 25 Laws of Parenting" (, 2002).  For more information you can visit her Web site at . Copyright 2004 by Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific psychological or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.