Childhood Obesity



By Glenna Weis, PhD & Peter Jaberg, PhD

Childhood obesity is a national problem as illustrated by 9 million children who were overweight as of 2010. Although there are many associated physical ailments, emotional aspects are often overlooked.  Further understanding is a necessity for treating children. As of 2006, the following data had been collected regarding children who are overweight enough to qualify as obese.

  • 16.3% of children and adolescents have a BMI over the 95th percentile
  • 31.9% at or above the 85th percentile
  • Overweight increased from 7.2 to 13.9% for 2-5 year olds, 11-19% among 6-11 year olds between 1988 to 1994 and 2003 to 2004.
  • Children age 12-19 had obesity increases from 11 to 17% between 1988-1994 and 2003 to 2004.

Risk factors include the areas of diet, activity level, genetics, psychological factors, family factors, and socioeconomic factors. In the last century our children’s diet has increased in the use of fast foods, vending machine snack, soft drinks, and candy, all of which are high in sugar and calories.  While this type of eating has increased inactivity of the youth has also increased due to more television watching, playing videogames, and surfing the net.  Children are not seen as often playing outside unless it is a sponsored athletic event.

Children who suffer from obesity can face a variety of life stressors and health risks. In addition to the everyday taunts and teases from peers on the bus, at school, or in the neighborhood, obese children also may experience health complications that make their lives difficult (for example, respiratory problems, circulatory problems, and diabetes). Research has also found that others associate laziness and other negative values to children who are obese.

Not all overweight children suffer negative emotional and interpersonal consequences. There are many happy children in this world of all shapes and sizes. Peer teasing and thoughtless comments from well-meaning adults and friends (such as “are you sure that you need to have more pasta?”) can harm a child’s view. Children often reflect on important daily questions: Am I a person of worth? Do people like me? If a child is constantly being teased about his or her weight and appearance, it may be difficult for the child to believe that “yes, I am a good person.” In addition to teasing and comments, some overweight children may have difficulties engaging in sports and physical activities. This likely limits the child’s opportunities to interact in healthy ways with peers. Children who are constantly teased and ridiculed may also learn to respond to their peers in kind: “If they are going to be mean to me…I am going to treat them the same way…” Some children who suffer from obesity cope with teasing by “keeping to themselves.” Social isolation can be a painfully lonely experience.

Psychosocial implications:

  • Overweight adolescents less likely to marry as adults
  • Victims of social stigmatization
  • Lower SES (social economic status) as adults
  • Lower self esteem and less assertiveness
  • Endorsed negative attitudes of obese individuals
  • Overweight adolescent females completed fewer years of high school
  • More likely to be bullied or bully others
  • Experience greater depressive symptomology
  • More likely to experience adult psychopathology

Medical Implications include Hypertension, Type 2 Diabetes, Sleep Apnea, Asthma, and increased risk for adult obesity.

“I have a child that is overweight, what should I do?” As parents it is important to remember that it is not always about how much is eaten at a meal, but rather: “what” is eaten, how much daily exercise the child is getting, and “how healthy is my child?” The bottom line is not about having an overweight child or a skinny child, it is about having a healthy and happy child.

Healthy children usually come from healthy families. Health is more than just the food that is eaten or the exercise that is completed, it is also about daily routines and habit, safety and security within the home, and positive peer relationships. Set aside some time for the family each week to engage in a healthy activity (such as going for a nature walk)—it will not only encourage healthy habits, but strengthen the emotional health of your family. If you have a child that you suspect suffers emotional problems due to their weight, it is important that you listen to his or her concerns and consider that individual or family therapy (to deal with the emotional struggles related to weight and relationships) may be a necessary component to building healthy children and families.

Treatment consists of facilitating behavior change by teaching strategies and providing emotional support to the child and the family.   Within the treatment, the therapist uses reinforcement and encouragement of physical activity and healthy eating (instead of restricting food) as the foundation of the treatment.  It has been found that working on increasing activity level, finding new coping methods besides eating, and decreasing “screen time” (tv, phone, video games, computer) are the most effective ways to change weight and still maintain a positive self-image.