Care and Feeding

Our Teenage Son Has Suddenly Gained 50 Pounds

My heart breaks for him, but I don’t know what to do. What is the right way to address weight issues with young adults?

A hand holding a bunch of broccoli.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

We’re a reasonably fit family—not skinny, not obese, we mostly eat right. I cook every night. Veggies, etc. We work out together, even. But over the past year and a half, my 17-year-old son has put on between 40 and 50 pounds. He doesn’t seem to know why, and he doesn’t seem to care. I think it has to do with suddenly asserting his independence, when he got a car and a job. Suddenly he could drive out for a greasy burrito for lunch, and so forth. The doctor gave him a stern lecture at his sports physical; his girlfriend has encouraged him to eat right. But he keeps up with the sodas and junk for lunch and eating late at night. I’m a bit mad at my husband about this, too, because he eats crap and sets that example, and argues about my no soda, no sweets rules around the house.

For my part, I’m paralyzed. On the one hand, I don’t think the right response is to be That Parent—the one who talks on and on about it, insists on a certain diet, etc. With a 17-year-old, how would I even police his food? And it’s not like he doesn’t know his own size, and I don’t want him to think he’s defined by his weight. So I just keep on making our regular healthy meals and buying these healthy groceries and encouraging him in his sports. And he keeps going out to eat crap constantly. But now I’m wondering if maybe I should be That Parent. Maybe I’m failing him somehow by not … what? I’m not even sure. By not calling him fat? I’m not obese, but I’ve struggled to be about average my entire life; I don’t want him to have to fight that battle.

So, what is the current wisdom on handling weight issues with young adults?  My gut tells me I have to sit back and let him adult this one out, but my heart is breaking with worry.

—Weight of the World

Dear WotW,

You’re in a difficult position, and I feel for you. It is incredibly hard to desperately want something for our kids but to not have the power to make it happen. But as the saying goes: You can lead a horse to water …

All of your instincts are correct. It is important and wonderful that you continue to set a good example by cooking meals and limiting unhealthy foods. You have spent 17 years building this example and now it is time for you to trust that, despite what you’re currently seeing, it hasn’t all been in vain.

I want to assure you that it is normal for teenagers to celebrate their newly gained independence by doing the very things that they were not allowed to do when others were in charge. I’d be more worried if you told me that your son responded to a sudden loosening of the chains of parental control by doing literally everything his parents wanted him to do. That would be weird.

Freedom is, of course, responsibility, and we tend to learn responsibility through trial and error. Try spending two hours around college frosh living away from home for the first time. They are absurd, unbridled, and nonsensical. Most of them calibrate their way back to something more reasonable within a few years. Some take longer.

Your son has all the support he needs. His girlfriend, doctor, and mother are all making their feelings known. And it’s not enough for him. And while you are certainly welcome to try managing your husband and your son at the same time, that strikes me as a one-way path toward headache and resentment. The gentler route for everyone involved is to for you to stay the course. Continue to run your home according to your standards. Pick your spots to make a gentle case for why your son might want to rethink his choices, but try to stay away from nagging or haranguing him. He will make a change when he is motivated to do so and not a moment before. And as much as you love him, you cannot make that happen for him. Good luck.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

For husband and I are expecting our first (likely only) baby this spring. We are superfortunate to both have good jobs, and I’m wondering how to make a baby registry for a shower that doesn’t come off as obnoxious. Don’t register at all? Don’t put any big-ticket items on them? On shower invites put “no gifts, your presence is enough”? Suggest donating to a diaper bank instead? We certainly would appreciate any gifts given; I just don’t want anyone to feel like they have to bring a gift just to come to celebrate at a shower. Am I just overthinking this?

—First World Problems

Dear FWP,

You may be overthinking this, but it’s entirely understandable, since you’re about to have a baby, which if I recall correctly is KIND OF A BIG DEAL. So first of all: Congratulations. Secondly: If you have an opportunity to get stuff for free then by all means get stuff for free. When I got married, we were young, idealistic hippies, and we did the old “your presence is a gift.” There are not that many things I regret, but I deeply regret that I didn’t have the wherewithal to say, “Your presence is a gift, but so is a Cuisinart stand mixer.”

It is great that you want to make sure that everyone has a way into the celebration of your growing family that doesn’t come with a price tag, but there are other ways to do that besides not having a registry at all. I would suggest giving people multiple points of entry and letting them choose what they’re comfortable with. You can certainly have a registry with a few big-ticket items but be sure to put a number of smaller things on there. Giving the option to donate to a charitable cause is also great and one of my personal favorites. A cost-diversified registry will let people get in where they fit in without denying you the opportunity to cash in on that baby. After all, you have good jobs today but—and I don’t want to be bleak—tomorrow is never guaranteed. And anyway, this baby is going to be enough work that you’ll probably deserve a little generosity.

Dear Care and Feeding,
Parents who say their kids “potty-trained themselves!” are all liars, right? And it’s OK to hate them?

—STFU

Dear STFU,

Not necessarily, and absolutely. They might not be lying. It is entirely possible for a kid to essentially potty train himself. I won’t tell you how I know that, for reasons that will become clear in Part 2 of my answer.

Part 2 of my answer: You don’t need to hate these people for lying. Instead, hate these people for not having the common decency to recognize that the vast majority of parents are driven to near madness by potty training, through no fault of their own. So bragging that your kids trained themselves, even if it’s true, is unspeakably cruel and uncaring. If you are a parent who has received this blessing, it just means you lucked out. You probably didn’t deserve it, so you should keep your big mouth shut about it.

—Carvell