One-third of all children in the US are overweight or obese and being overweight is a stigma that leads to teasing and bullying. One study found that over 85% of children report seeing an overweight peer being teased and bullied during gym class. It is more common than gender issues, race, ethnicity, physical disability or religion. Children and especially teenagers are very sensitive to the social effects of being singled out as overweight. Children who are overweight are bullied since they are viewed by others as being different or undesirable. Weight is a visible way to stigmatize children.
Overweight bullying leads to increased stress and social isolation. It diminishes self-esteem and self-worth and causes children to be excluded from social opportunities. It often leads to depression, anxiety, loneliness and sadness. Children who are bullied due to their weight are more prone to become bullies themselves and often rely on binge eating for comfort.
When a parent is told about this type of bullying the focus must be on attentive, sensitive and responsive reflective listening. Parents must be attuned to the feelings and needs of their child and tell the child: “I am sorry this happened, and I am glad you told me.” The child must be told teasing is never right or fair. The parent must explain how teasing hurts others and is always wrong. The focus of the discussion is then pivoted to the fact that how much a person weighs does not define who they are. Weight is only one of many measures of good health, and it is a measure that can be changed and controlled.
The language that is chosen when talking about being overweight is very important. Judgmental or stigmatizing language causes overweight children to shut down and withdraw and hinders discussions. The weight-based terminology you choose will have a lasting effect on your child’s willingness to lose weight. Parents must emphasize how their love is unconditional no matter what the child’s weight is, and how the extra or added weight the child is carrying can make the body work extra hard and cause the child to have less energy. The child should be asked: “How does the extra weight make you feel?” At the same time the parent reaffirms the importance of a healthy lifestyle and why how you feel is more important than how you look. For the final step the parent explains how working together will help the child to lose weight and become healthier.
Losing weight is never easy. It takes time, consistency and effort. Small incremental changes in dietary intake and activity level are essential as are stress reduction and adequate sleep. The modeling of a healthy lifestyle and weight pattern by parents is also essential. By increasing active time and time spent outdoors risk factors such as excessive screen time and sedentary time are decreased. An emphasis on family play time and joint activity time also helps as does shopping together for healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables. Choosing and preparing healthy and favorite recipes together increases compliance and make losing weight a more enjoyable experience.
It is vital for every parent to strive to stop weight based bullying and its consequences. By working with the government, schools, organizations and other parents this stigma can be eliminated as the most common cause of victimization and bullying in the US.