How to talk with your parents about their unhealthy habits without being disrespectful


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Between the Butterball turkeys (or glazed butternut squashes!), latkes, and Christmas cookies, the odds are strong that you’ve clocked in more time around your parents’ dinner table this past month than you have all year. Given all of that QT, you may have uncovered some unsettlingly unhealthy habits about the very people who taught you how to live (NBD): Dad douses everything in salt! Mom hasn’t worked out since her Sweatin’ to the Oldies VHS broke eight years ago!

No matter which vices your folks prefer, as a loving, caring child, the lifestyle choices may well ring alarm bells and inspire you to have the talk. (No, not that talk!) Yep, you decide—knowing everything you do about living a well and health-rich life—to call a family meeting and lay out all of your concerns about the things you see as problematic. (Because, Dad—that fried chicken salad with iceberg lettuce and extra ranch may well be a salad, but it’s not doing your organs any favors.)

But, uh oh! Your parents aren’t quite feeling your Healthy Living 101 lecture. I mean, are you really surprised they don’t want to be parented by you? This, according to psychotherapist Matt Lundquist, LCSW, of Tribeca Therapy, often happens because even if you’re coming from the best possible place, there’s a right and a wrong way to go about schooling your parents.

“I always believe that before you’re offering anybody any help or advice or guidance, it’s important to have affirmative consent, particularly if there isn’t much of a history or if there’s a history of this happening and not going so well,” he says. “It’s important for the child to say, ‘Hey, Mom. Hey, Dad. I’ve got some concerns about this issue. Do you want to hear them?’ And then to get a clear invitation or not.”

Ask to talk with them, but don’t talk down to them

If they’re willing to have the conversation about their health, begin by asking them questions (and not issuing edicts), says registered dietitian LeeAnn Weintraub. “I spend a lot of time giving people advice on their eating and their lifestyle, and the number-one thing I want to hear is what they think the problem is,” she says. “If they don’t see something as being a problem, it might not matter what advice I’m giving.”

“I spend a lot of time giving people advice…and the number-one thing I want to hear is what they think the problem is. If they don’t see something as being a problem, it might not matter what advice I’m giving.” —LeeAnn Weintraub, registered dietitian

Lundquist agrees: “Say things like, ‘Hey, I’ve found out a little bit about ABCD. Do you know much about that?’ or ‘I’ve been doing some reading on some new treatments. Have you seen somebody about that?’ Don’t make assumptions that the parent doesn’t know or hasn’t taken steps,” he says.

How to talk to your parents about their unhealthy habits
Photo: Getty Images/Betsie Van Der Meer

Be reasonable with your suggestions

If you feel like you’ve reached a point in your conversation where you can dole out some concrete advice—like suggesting they ride their bike to run errands or eat a little less bacon at breakfast—make sure your suggestions align realistically with their lifestyle.

“Always be respectful and understanding of what their limitations are,” says Weintraub. “If there’s a parent who is living in an apartment that has a small space, and you’re telling them, ‘You need to get a treadmill and walk,’ maybe there’s no place to put a treadmill. Think about what advice is going to be helpful versus advice that might be seen as impractical or nagging.”

You may be more successful in gaining traction if you offer to participate in some of recommendations you’re offering. For instance, maybe you agree to a morning walk on the weekends or attend a healthy cooking class the next time you’re in town. “They see it as, ‘Maybe I don’t want to walk, but if it’s time with my kid, then I’ll do it,’” says Weintraub.

TL;DR: What not to do, under any circumstance, when trying to help your parents

Both experts say there are a few caveats to keep in mind the next time you feel like transforming into your parents’ very own walking, talking self-help advice slinger.

For one, respect the parent-child dynamic, and don’t baby or coddle them. “It’s the same thing I would say to parents about certain things with their children: Once your kid knows how to put their pants on, don’t put your kid’s pants on for them,” says Lundquist. Basically, feel free to share the material and evidence, but don’t the homework. “Often the child will end up doing more or offering to do more in excess. But if a parent is capable of doing some reading, then the parent should do the reading and the child shouldn’t do the reading on the part of the parent.”

Keep in mind that some advice skews extreme or impractical or even ill-advised for an older generation. Plus, your parents likely have different concerns for their lifestyle and health than you do for yours.

Likewise, unless you’re a medical professional, be careful about being prescriptive. “I see this in my practice where the younger generation is giving their parents not-so-great advice,” Weintraub says. “They’re telling their parents they need to make major restrictions with their food; they want them to follow these really trendy diets. The parents don’t even know how to institute it.” So go ahead and share resources with your parents, Weintraub says, but keep in mind that some advice skews extreme or impractical or even ill-advised for an older generation. Plus, your parents likely have different concerns for their lifestyle and health than you do for yours.

When in doubt, leave the advice-giving to the professionals. But do feel free to pull the ultimate mom move, and passive-aggressively email your parents articles—year-round—relevant to your concerns about their health.

Now that you know how to have tough conversations with your parents, here’s how to help a loved one who seems depressed over the holidays. And here’s how to be alone without being lonely.

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