The Emotional Toll of Obesity
Three times as many 6- to 17-year-olds are overweight now than 30 years ago. And the epidemic of alarming proportions is only getting worse — some researchers project that nearly half of the kids in North America will weigh too much by 2010.
Being overweight or obese can significantly affect kids' daily way of life, potentially causing serious physical and psychological problems now and in the future, says a recent study. Researchers from Yale University and the University of Hawaii at Manoa pored through 40 years of findings to analyze the extensive, often endless stigma that overweight children commonly endure.
According to the study, kids and teens carrying around excess pounds may be the targets of bias and stereotyping not only from their peers, but also teachers and, surprisingly, their parents. Kids who are overweight frequently experience unfair treatment, prejudice, and discrimination, says the study, and are often:
- prone to low self-esteem, depression, and suicidal thoughts
- teased, bullied, or rejected by peers (even as early as preschool)
- more likely to develop unhealthy dieting habits and eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia
Overweight children are also already at risk for conditions once thought only to affect adults (like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol). And, according to the study, the cruel treatment and social disadvantages associated with being overweight may have lasting, harmful effects on everything from kids' physical health to their education, from their relationships to their jobs.
That's why the researchers say discrimination of overweight kids and teens is just as serious an issue as "racial discrimination or discrimination against children with physical disabilities."
What This Means to You
If you're worried your kids or teens may be overweight, the sooner you can make an appointment with your doctor, the better. Preventing or treating obesity in children may reduce their risk of developing medical and emotional issues now, as well as serious conditions (like diabetes, heart disease, and stroke) down the road.
To help your kids feel better about themselves, no matter what their weight:
- Never tease, belittle, or make negative comments about their shortcomings or mistakes. Instead, offer praise and encouragement about their positive attributes and their efforts.
- Promote a can-do attitude. Encourage their strengths and help them work on (but never emphasize) their weaknesses.
- Be a role model of healthy self-esteem. Avoid saying things like, "I'm so fat." Instead, show that you like yourself for who you are, even if (like most people) there may be room for improvement.
- Help them find something — a hobby, a mentoring program, a job — they can succeed in and be proud of.
- Make sure they feel loved, accepted, and supported at home. Be generous with your affection and attention — keep the hugs and quality time coming.
Overweight kids and teens also need to understand they're not in it alone — that you're always in their corner and that other kids are waging the battle against added pounds, too.
Plus, plenty of sympathetic, qualified professionals — doctors, registered dietitians, and therapists — can help kids of all sizes get both their bodies and their self-esteem back in healthy shape again.
Source: "Stigma, Obesity, and the Health of the Nation's Children," Psychological Bulletin, July 2007.
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
© 1995-2009 The Nemours Foundation. All rights reserved.
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