Childhood obesity has accelerated to an epidemic level with approximately eighteen percent of children and adolescents now considered overweight*.

Common physical problems often recognized with obesity include the risk for Type 2 Diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and early puberty—just to name a few. The social and emotional problems associated with overweight children are just as troubling.

  • Depressive symptoms—Overweight children may experience overwhelming feelings of hopelessness leading to depression. Symptoms of depression may include a decreased interest in normal activities, excessive crying, a constant sullen expression, and an increase in sleeping, any of which may lead to further obesity.
  • Low self-concept and bullying—Children who are overweight tend to become victims of bullying and may in turn become bullies as they struggle with a lack of self-confidence and negative feelings.
  • Risk of eating disorders—With the strong emphasis placed on weight by Western cultures, many children are developing eating disorders at a younger age. Too often they are attracted to short-term gimmicks for quick weight loss only to rebound with greater weight gains than before.
  • Behavioral problems and school-related anxiety—Overweight children often deal with social struggles with peers and difficulties in the classroom. School avoidance and lack of positive social interactions can lead to academic problems, preventing the overweight child from meeting the child’s full potential.
  • Emotional eating—With increased stress and anxiety, children (like adults) may turn to food as a source of comfort. This destructive eating habit can lead to a vicious cycle of eating-weight gain-depression-more eating-more weight gain.

Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that eighty percent of overweight children at aged ten to fifteen years were obese adults at age twenty-five. Prevention and early intervention are the best medicines.

How can parents help?

  • Teach your children appropriate ways to express their emotions. Encourage them to talk about their feelings and not to internalize or eat their emotions. It is important to teach them feeling words early to encourage verbal expression. Non-verbal emotional outlets might include drawing, role-play with toys, and an exercise time-out such as jumping or running.
  • Help your children learn to love and accept themselves as you reflect that unconditional love toward them. They need to understand and appreciate that the media fascination and fixation on “thin is in” is a lie for a healthy way to grow.
  • If you notice emotional eating, confront your child and discuss healthy alternatives for meeting the underlying need.
  • Set a good example for your child with availability of healthy food choices and exercise opportunities.
  • Praise your children and focus on their gifts and talents to build and affirm their self-concept.

By Ellen D. Begley, MAEd, RN, NCC, LPC Ellen is a registered nurse as well as a licensed and national board certified counselor. She has a private practice that serves children ages two to eighteen and over eighteen years of experience counseling children and educating parents.

* The percentage of children aged 6–11 years in the United States who were obese increased from 7% in 1980 to nearly 18% in 2010. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents aged 12–19 years who were obese increased from 5% to 18% over the same period (CDC)