The latest statistics indicate that kids today are more overweight than they have ever been before. Some 17 percent of American children and teens are obese, and millions more are overweight. It’s time to talk about it. It’s time to take action. Obesity puts children, as it does adults, at greater risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, respiratory illnesses, orthopedic disorders, as well as psychological and social problems.

What’s a parent to do? While the situation is indeed serious and needs attention, do not panic and sign your child up for an expensive program or buy the latest diet book. Fast weight loss is more harmful than healthful, and if the child can’t comply, the feelings of failure can be psychologically damaging to their sense of self-worth. Research shows that losing weight permanently comes from a slow retraining process that involves a change in attitude toward food, eating less, and moving the body more. It works because your teen takes responsibility for his or her own weight loss. They are in control, not you.

It may be your teen’s responsibility, but you can still help from the sidelines. Here’s what you need to know about safe dieting for your teen.

  1. Understand the program. You should be informed about what they are doing. You should feel comfortable knowing that whatever program your child undertakes presents a safe and reasonable way to lose weight and not some hyped-up scheme.
  2. Do not insist that your teen diet if he or she is not ready. Losing weight has to be self-motivated. Nagging is not productive. It will hurt their self-image and self-esteem, and will also encourage resentment toward you. Let them know you love them no matter what they weigh.
  3. Do not assume responsibility for their problem. If they show interest in dieting, proceed carefully. Don’t take control and sign them up for the program that worked for you; don’t put them on your diet. Let them find their own way. Unless you’re asked, hold your tongue.
  4. Don’t be overly concerned with instant results. Change is difficult for anyone. No matter how anxious your teen is to lose weight, she or he will not always make the best choices. Allow them to practice their plan at their own pace.
  5. Encourage physical activity. Help your child find ways of adding steps to their daily routine. You can park farther away from the store. Ask them to wash the car, vacuum the carpet, or walk the dog. If they want to sign up for dancing or tennis, be supportive.
  6. Limit TV and video time. Studies show that television contributes to weight gain. It monopolizes time that could be spent on more active endeavors and is associated with increased snacking. Furthermore, the body’s metabolic rate drops between 12 percent and 16 percent while watching the tube. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, two hours a day is the maximum for watching TV.
  7. Ask your teen how you can best help. Teens need your support. What foods do they want in the house? You could talk about foods they like that are healthier and lower in calories. You don’t have to restructure everything your family has done for years or give up family traditions, but working together on their program could be a fun family project. On the other hand, if they ask you not to be so helpful, back off.
  8. Spend time alone with your teen. Talk about all the various things that are going on in their lives, like school, friends, music, or fashion. Let them know you are interested in who they are and that you love and appreciate their unique qualities. Praise is always worthwhile. If your teen (probably daughter) is into it, take her to a health spa and spend time talking about the foods they offered and classes she enjoyed. But do this only if she is interested.
  9. Be a role model. Are you overweight? Do you want to lose weight too? Record your own behaviors and goals. Also bear in mind that while the thought of “dieting” together may sound good to you, it may not be how your teen wants to bond. So be open to their feelings and proceed with caution.
  10. Be patient. Kids love to test parents. One day they want you to buy fruit for snacking and the next day they may criticize you for not having any goodies in the house. Losing weight is not an easy process. Be helpful, but avoid the guilt trap. Ultimately, it’s their process. They will feel great when they have done it themselves.