It's hard being an overweight child or teen. There are the obvious health risks; 60 percent of obese kids are at risk for diabetes or cardiovascular disease, but for most overweight children the actual consequences won't come until later in life. The eventual health consequences aren't trivial; it's been suggested that this may be the first generation in America to have a shorter lifespan than their parents.
Although the medical consequences of childhood obesity may not emerge until adulthood, the psychological effects are immediately present. Studies have shown that discrimination against overweight kids begins in kindergarten or earlier. One study of five year-olds found that they described an overweight child as "lazy, dirty, stupid, and ugly." A new study found that 4 - 8 year old children were less likely to help overweight peers with everyday tasks like picking up toys. Another study reported that virtually all overweight teenage girls had been verbally abused. College students when asked to rate the desirability of a potential spouse rated cocaine users, embezzlers, and shoplifters as better marriage partners than an obese person.
The psychological consequences of the stigmatization of overweight children cannot be overestimated. In addition to lowering the child's self-esteem, there can be depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts. It's understandable that, instead of playing with other kids and risking humiliation, an overweight kid may retreat and engage in solitary (usually sedentary) activities. Sometimes parents don't recognize the suffering of their overweight child because the child is too embarrassed to tell Mom or Dad about the indignities they've suffered.
If you suspect that your child might be teased or harassed because of her weight there are several things you can do. Perhaps the single most important thing you can do is to listen. When your child is describing the problem it's natural to want to tell them what they should do, but it's better to just listen without offering advice or comments until your child has told you the whole story. When your child is describing what happened you can express your understanding and concern by maintaining eye contact and nodding sympathetically.
When your child is finished you can explain that it's likely that the kid doing the teasing is insecure. The teaser is trying to make himself feel better by putting you down. Sometimes the teaser is unpopular and thinks that he will be accepted by the more popular kids if they see him making fun of you.
To help "inoculate" your child against future harassment you can suggest:
- Don't look embarrassed or intimidated
- Don't give the bully any pleasure by responding or showing any emotion
- Tell the teacher or other trusted adult. This isn't tattling but rather you are showing the bully that you can't be intimidated
- If it is a friend or family member doing the teasing let them know that teasing won't help you lose weight.
Since overweight kids frequently are socially isolated you can help your child become more social by getting him or her involved in afterschool activities. Would your child enjoy the Boy or Girl Scouts? Could he join a youth group at your church or synagogue? For younger kids you could arrange a play date and invite neighborhood children. Anything that increases your child's socializing will tend to decrease teasing and ultimately help your child get to a healthy weight.