Childhood Obesity: Social and Emotional Issues
By Ellen D. Begley, MAEd, RN, NCC, LPC

Childhood obesity has accelerated to an epidemic level with approximately 15% of children and adolescents now considered to be 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. Just as troubling are the social and emotional problems associated with overweight children.

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 flat affect, 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 lower self-concept.

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.

Social struggles with peers and difficulties in the classroom may lead to behavioral problems and school-related anxiety. 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 an unhealthy cycle of eating – weight gain

Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 80% of overweight children at aged 10-15 years were obese adults at age 25 years. Prevention and early intervention are the best medicines.

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 with 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.