The psychological consequences of being teased or bullied as a child because of one's weight can be far-reaching.
It can be rare to find an adult with lifelong weight issues who was not mocked as a child. So it should come as no surprise that bullying because of weight is an important issue.
As a psychologist and expert in weight management, here are some questions I've received about it:
Q: MY ADOLESCENT DAUGHTER HAS GAINED WEIGHT OVER THE COURSE OF A FEW MONTHS, BUT SHE DOESN'T SEEM TO ACKNOWLEDGE IT. I DON'T WANT HER TO BE PREOCCUPIED WITH HER WEIGHT, BUT I'M AFRAID THAT IF I IGNORE IT THE WEIGHT GAIN WILL CONTINUE, AND IT COULD LEAD TO HEALTH AND/OR SOCIAL PROBLEMS. WHAT'S THE RIGHT BALANCE?
A: Let's start by understanding that weight gain is just a symptom. It's not the problem. Your job as a parent is to try to find out what the real problem is.
If it's poor eating and inactivity, addressing this issue needs to be a family affair. Don't single out your daughter because she is overweight by putting her on a diet while everyone else eats the old way.
Everyone should be enjoying healthful food and activity regardless of weight. Instead, make overall family changes, such as active vacations, cooking healthful meals together and eating together, taking cooking classes together, giving gifts that encourage activity, taking after-dinner walks or playing an active Wii game.
If the real problem is emotional - perhaps even an eating disorder - you may need a different strategy. Healthful family habits are always good. But for a child with bigger problems than a fondness for fast food, communication is especially essential.
Try to find out what's going on in your child's life. This needs to be done in a compassionate way that doesn't focus on the symptom of her weight.
Don't say, 'why are you eating so much'? Or, 'I see you've been gaining weight. What's wrong'?
This approach is more likely to make her defensive and less likely to share with you. Instead, keep weight out of the discussion. Try to subtly engage her in conversation about her life and concerns. Listen without giving advice. Don't dismiss anything she says, and don't overreact. Resist the urge to step in and fix problems. Just show her that you think what she's saying is important. This will help you get to the root of the problem faster.
If, after trying these steps, it turns out that the problem seems too complicated for you to handle, seek guidance from a professional. There are many good therapists who specialise in adolescents, families and eating problems. Let them guide you toward the right balance.
Q: MY SON IS BEING TEASED AT SCHOOL BECAUSE HE'S OVERWEIGHT. HOW CAN I BEST HELP HIM?
A: The first important step is to show your child that you have compassion for his situation and you love him. Sit down and talk, but don't just say, 'don't worry about it' or 'don't let it bother you'. This is the type of situation that would bother anyone.
Most children who are bullied can't help but feel that there is something wrong with them that is causing the abuse. So you want to help your son know that you value him and that he is not flawed. Let him know that you intend to work with him to make the situation better.
Next, give him a logical, age-appropriate explanation for why kids pick on others. Often the bully's own low self-esteem leads him to pick on someone else to feel better about himself, but that doesn't make it right. Help your child see that bullying is always wrong and that the problem is with the bully, not the victim.
Encourage your child to talk about his feelings. In addition, even if the situation seems to be over, periodically check with your child to see how things are going.
If your child says he wants to lose weight, start a discussion about healthful behaviours instead of focusing on weight. Talk about how the entire family can benefit from engaging in such behaviours together. Then make sure you follow through with the commitment to have health be a family affair.
Finally, ask school officials what they are doing to address bullying.
Childhood obesity and bullying are complicated problems that we all have to face for the sake of our children, but it needs to be done in the right way. It's important not to be so focused on the symptom that we fail to address the real problem. Treat the issues with sensitivity and thoughtfulness and you'll be headed in the right direction.
- Lavinia Rodriguez is a psychologist and expert in weight management, and the author of Mind Over Fat Matters: Psychological Barriers to Weight Management.