"Honey, you really should be more conscious about how much you eat."

"I wish you would stop feeding your face so much!"

"When are you going to push yourself away from the table and lose some weight?"

"If you keep eating like that, you'll be as big as a house one day."

How many times have you found yourself criticizing your child's weight or making insinuations that he should lose weight?

While parents want to protect and guide their children as they grow into their adolescent years, therapists say that demanding or constantly stressing that an overweight teenager lose weight actually can do more harm than good. Simply put, adolescents (just as any other age group) overeat, sometimes becoming overweight or reaching a level of extreme obesity due to a number of psychological reasons, some of which can be attributed to parents.

"I haven't always been overweight," says Ann, a 17-year-old high-school junior in McLean. "I've always had a tendency to overeat. It just got progressively worse. My mom is kind of controlling."

Ann says that often when she would talk with her mother about problems, her mother would be quick to criticize instead of listening and offering friendly advice. "Even with my clothes I felt that I would have to buy clothes that she liked," Ann says. "I'm the youngest, so I always looked for a lot of attention. I found attention in food that I didn't get from my parents. I would also get depressed about school work and I would eat ... "

Her family constantly badgered her to lose weight, but she could not abandon the impulse to overeat. By the end of her freshman year of high school, Ann had gained 60 pounds.

In 1988, the New England Medical Center in Boston found that obesity in young people, ages 12 to 17, has increased by 39 percent in the past 15 years. Most national health institutes define obesity as being 20 percent over the suggested weight, which is determined by height and sex. Twenty to 25 percent of today's adolescents are obese, and there is a 50 to 95 percent chance that those persons in their late teens will remain obese as they move into adulthood.

Melanie of Reston is leaving her adolescent years behind as she graduates this year and goes on to college. However, at 17, she still is battling to lose the 80 pounds she gained as a teenager. "Food is like a drug, but it's harder to quit overeating than {to quit} doing drugs," she says. Because you need food to live and survive, she says, "it's very easy to abuse it."

Melanie's childhood was unhappy. She remembers the pain and poverty as her family lived from paycheck to paycheck. She and her then-obese mother even considered suicide as a way to terminate their unhappiness. "I would turn to food," she says. "It wasn't just nutrition. It was a comfort."

While many people consider adolescence to be the best years of a person's life -- years of growth, discovery and fun -- for many children it can be a time of confusion and insecurity. "There's lots of pressures on an adolescent. They're not comfortable with themselves and their bodies," says Janet Laubgross, a clinical psychologist in Fairfax, adding that most teenage overeaters turn to food to soothe their depression and low self-esteem.

"They are also really afraid of intimate relationships, although it's not conscious," she says. "Heavy people {in this society} are not considered attractive, so {eating} is a good way to keep people away from them."

Admitting that one reason she ate was to keep males from approaching her, Ann says that while she "felt so horrible about myself," she also was scared of getting attention from males. "I never had enough self-confidence to date," she says. "I have this one girlfriend that is really pretty and if we'd walk past guys and they'd look at her, I'd get so jealous." She then would binge on food.

And yet, while food clearly serves as a crutch or shield for many troubled teens, the worst thing a parent can do is nag the child about it. Parents "can antagonize the child and make them defensive, reluctant and defiant," says Arthur Frank, an internist at George Washington University Hospital and clinical assistant professor at George Washington University.

Parents never should force the issue of their teenager losing weight. "Part of adolescence is to develop a sense of independence," says Frank. "It's a turbulent time and it often puts (the child) in conflict with the parents. When dealing with adolescents and obesity you have to involve the parents. They have to transfer that responsibility to the child and enable the child to do things that he wants to do.

"Very few kids living at home can totally manage their own food. It's Mom who prepares the dinner and Mom who brings it in the house," he says. "It requires a huge amount of understanding and compassion."

James Holt of Forestville admits that much of the junk food consumed by his sons, James Jr., 13, and Chris, 9, was brought into the home by him and his former wife. But while he watched his sons become increasingly overweight, he never sought to put them on diets.

"I think that parents should put their children on diets. {Being overweight} impairs them from doing so much as a kid," Holt says now. "I never put my kids on a diet, because I guess I just wasn't being responsible enough."

Yet, restricting the diet of your child is tricky business. "No person has the right to impose starvation on another," says Ellyn Satter, a dietitian/therapist at the Family Therapy Center in Madison, Wis., and author of "How To Get Your Kid To Eat ... But Not Too Much."

"Withholding food profoundly interferes with a child's autonomy and you will both pay the price for that. He will grow up feeling angry with you {and} bad about himself."

Frank believes that the process of relinquishing control from the parent to the child may help the child begin to take more responsibility for his eating habits. "Part of the task of adolescence is the ability to make decisions and live with them," says Frank, who adds that for most of a child's life he is controlled by his parents and teachers. By releasing power to the child, "he can learn how to superimpose the {weight regulators in the body} and will learn to eat less by willful behavior."

Often, when parents are insistent about the adolescent losing weight, they want the child to lose it fast, says Chris Athas, vice president of the National Association for Anorexia Nervosa and Other Eating Disorders. But while the pounds might be lost quickly, the child is subject to "yo-yo," he adds. "They may lose weight, but they'll probably gain it all back and maybe even more."

In her book, Satter writes that parents should begin to impose healthier eating habits on their child at an earlier age. These things include structuring the child's meals and snacks, limiting the visibility of food around the house during non-mealtimes and keeping the caloric density of food moderate. It simply is better to give a child more of what is good for him than depriving him of things that are bad for him. Eventually the child will manage his own food intake more properly. "If you maintain a positive feeding relationship, you will avoid over-feeding at one extreme and withholding food at the other," says Satter.

James Holt Jr. now is at the suggested weight for his age and height. "He started to hang out with his friends and that's what helped him to lose weight," says his father, adding that getting James into new activities with his peers rather than being an after-school couch potato helped the youngster's self-esteem, which led to his wanting to lose weight.

During this process, experts emphasize that parents need to continue to support their obese teenagers. Helping to boost their self-esteem and making them feel important, fat or not, are ways to support the children while indirectly encouraging their desire to lose weight. "My mother would call me cute, but she would say, 'You would be so pretty if you would only lose weight,' " says Melanie.

Ann, now a member of a self-help group for compulsive eaters, eventually took the initiative to lose weight. Her mother attends the meetings as well, to gain a better understanding of her child's problems and how she can support her.

If your teenager decides he wants to diet, "don't get yourself in the role of supervisor or enforcer," advises Satter. "He'll end up fighting with you rather than adhering to his diet."

"My parents are somewhat supportive, but they really don't understand," says Melanie, who decided to get counseling for her weight problem with the help of a counselor at school who also is an overeater. Melanie's parents do not attend her therapy sessions because "(they) don't recognize that they could be a problem," she says. Her father has made hurtful comments about her weight loss program and her mother, who is now thin, sometimes passes down large-size clothing to her to insinuate that she is still overweight.

"When I lost the weight I felt good about myself, not because I lost the weight, but because I remained abstinent {from eating sugar} and I did it on my own," says Melanie. Self-esteem is the bottom line.