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Rescuing The Emotional Lives of Overweight Children 1

In a recent study of 15 countries, including the United States, the U.S. had the dubious honor of being ranked first in the prevalence of overweight and obese adolescents.2  We have a serious public health problem, yet we can’t expect to help adolescents who are overweight without understanding the emotional struggles they’re experiencing. The book Rescuing the Emotional Lives of Overweight Children will show the shocking results of my study of over 5,000 middle school children and compare the experiences overweight children cope with to kids who are of average weight.

Al Roker, meteorologist on NBC’s Today Show, who struggled with being overweight in his own childhood, has this to say: “Let’s face it, fat people are the last minority that it’s okay to make fun of. Thankfully, Sylvia Rimm takes a measured, calm, rational look at the subject and has written a book on how we can make sure our children who are obese get healthy, both physically and emotionally.”  Al Roker knows my approach to working with families well from my more than one hundred appearances on the Today Show. 

Here are some of the sad findings of my study:

Terrible Self-Confidence Problems

friesOverweight children were five times as likely to describe their self-confidence as poor compared to average-weight children.  They were much more likely to describe themselves as lonely, sad, fearful, and different.  Overweight girls were less likely to describe themselves as popular or beautiful.  Overweight boys were less likely to describe themselves as athletic.  Overweight children were much more worried about almost everything, and very over-weight children were three times as worried about their futures than average-weight children. No wonder the children eat to cope with their sorrow.                              

Overweight Kids Don’t Feel Smart Enough

I was a pretty smart kid, in the gifted program and advance placement classes, and I went to the Air Force Academy for college.  I never considered myself smart despite those high achievements.  I simply had low self-esteem.      
Nancy, adult interviewee

Very overweight children were twice as likely as average-weight children to believe they were not smart enough.  Furthermore, they were more likely to believe their teachers didn’t understand them.

Underachievement and overeating share some psychological similarities.  That is, both are groups of defense mechanisms that indicate feelings of discouragement.  Children avoid doing schoolwork because they believe that even if they put forth appropriate effort, it won’t result in good grades or teacher or parental approval.  They protect their fragile self-concepts by making excuses, blaming teachers or parents, or claiming schoolwork is boring.  Underachieving by not accomplishing homework or by not studying becomes a bad habit, and grades become worse, thus causing these children to lose even more of their academic confidence.  They often say they don’t care, but may dream of magically becoming rock stars or computer whizzes like Bill Gates.

I didn’t believe anything good about myself, so I couldn’t believe I was smart.  I felt like a blob.  I had terrible grades.  I didn’t believe in myself, so I didn’t try hard.  My attitude was “Why bother?”  When I was in eighth grade, they gave us IQ and achievement tests to place us in high school.  My dad got the report and he said, “Your teacher said you have the second-highest IQ in the class.”  I was floored.  It was the first time I realized I might be really smart.
Darlene, adult interviewee

Similarly, overeating and underexercising represent children’s beliefs that even if they eat less and exercise more, they won’t succeed in being attractive, healthy, or thin.  They may as well enjoy their food and television as solace for what they believe they can’t accomplish anyway.  As overweight children make excuses and deny they have a problem, they convince themselves that there is nothing they can do to become healthier.  Often, they may say they don’t care, but may dream they can be like Britney Spears and be thin and beautiful through some magical power.  They realize the societal advantage of physical beauty; they simply have no hope of achieving it.

You Guessed It! 
They’re Coach Potatoes and Mouse Potatoes

Ever since I was a little kid, I was fat, and that made me feel different from other kids.  Kids left me out of their groups.  I had absolutely no one to play with on the playground; not a single friend.  On Valentine’s Day, when other kids got valentines saying, “I love you” or “Be mine,” my valentine had an elephant on it.  Some love!  I felt like an elephant.  A wall kept going up, higher and higher, separating me from everyone.  I felt imprisoned until this year.  This year my teacher liked me.  She helped me find my talents.  She told me I was good at writing, math, and music and that I had a good personality.  Her confidence in me made me feel different, but in a good way.  I started making friends and felt smart and better about myself.  Now I think the wall is tumbling down, and I have new hope for my future.
Alyssa, eighth-grader

Very overweight children spent nearly twice as much time watching TV than average-weight children.  They also spent more time on computers, playing video games, sending E-mail, and using the Internet.  They were much less likely to be involved in athletics and more likely to participate in music and art.  Overweight children also spent more time alone than average-weight children and of course, when they were alone, they were more likely to be eating.

A Love-Hate Family Relationship

Parents of overweight tweens and teens have a love-hate relationship with them.  Sometimes their kids remind them of weight problems they too struggled with, or sometimes they’re angry at their partner for being overweight and take their anger out on their children.  Overweight children often strain family relationships. Family relationships of very overweight girls were four times as likely to be bad than they were for average-weight girls. For very overweight boys, relationships were three times as likely to be bad.


Parents and Teachers Can Make the Difference

Parents and teachers can help overweight children build self-esteem, handle peer battles, and learn resilience and optimism.  They can help them take the path to achievement and avoid underachievement.  Adults can help overweight kids to become more active and physical.  And finally, parents can help improve family relationships. I developed the Six-Step Healthy Rescue Plan (below) to start you on the path to rescuing the emotional lives of overweight children.

The Six-Step Healthy Rescue Plan

  1. Be a coach, instead of a judge.
  2. Go for the goal.
  3. Recruit additional support.
  4. Design a nutritional plan.
  5. Organize an exercise effort.
  6. Celebrate strengths.
For additional reading on related topics, check out the books Rescuing the Emotional Lives of Overweight Children and Growing Up Too Fast, and the related Parenting Articles, Teaching Girls Resilience and Optimism and Raising Amazing Boys.

1 Adapted from Rescuing the Emotional Lives of Overweight Children by Sylvia Rimm (Emmaus, PA: Rodale Publishing, 2004) 

2 Lissau, I., M.D. Overpeck, W.J. Ruan, P. Due, B.E. Holstein, M.L. Hediger, and the Health Behavior in School-aged Children Obesity Working Group (2004).  Body mass index and overweight in adolescents in 13 European countries, Israel, and the United States.  Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine 158 (1): 27-33

©2007 by Sylvia B. Rimm. All rights reserved. This publication, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without written permission of the author.

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