Fat Children More Likely to be Shunned

November 12, 2012

Fat Children More Likely to be Shunned

Overweight or Obese Children have a 15% to 20% Higher Chance of Peer Related Issues

An Australian study has found that children who are obese are more likely to be socially isolated throughout their childhood.

The study took place from 2004 to 2008 and followed 3,300 children as they went from pre-school into school. Although the study was looking at the children, their families and teachers were also included. Parents were interviewed and both parents and teachers were given questionnaires to fill in. The questionnaire addressed issues such as the children’s mental health and quality of life. Heights and weights of the children were also recorded at the start and end of the study.

Of those participants at 4 or 5 years old, 13% of the boys and 16% of the girls were recorded as being overweight. Approximately 5% of boys and girls were classified as obese. It was found that there was about 20% more likelihood of obese 4 and 5 year olds having relationship problems with classmates when they were 8 or 9 years old.

Common happenings as reported by teachers and parents included trouble making friends, exclusion from social events such as classmates’ birthday parties and teasing from other children leading to rejection. The relationship problems did not change even if other issues such as financial, social standing or education, which are known to have an affect on social behavior, were considered.

No links were seen between weight and social interaction and isolation. The researchers did not find any evidence that a 4 or 5 year old with behavioral or social functioning problems or indicating that they were lonely or isolated was more likely to become overweight or obese as an 8 or 9 year old child than any other children.

Being Obese can Stigmatize Children

Previous research had already identified that older children and adolescents who were obese or overweight were more likely to be shunned, leading to isolation and stigmatization, than other normal weight children. The result of being shunned led to disconnection from social networks.

The study researcher was Michael G. Sawyer, MBBS, PhD, who is a professor and head of the Research and Evaluation Unit at the University of Adelaide’s Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Australia. He warns that that obesity may affect children’s mental health in different ways. He believes that obese children think that they are the butt of criticism. This takes them down the road of withdrawing from their peers. He also says,” It is possible that adults model critical attitudes and behaviors about body size which are imitated by other kids at school”.

“These things are potential risk factors for later mental health problems,” Sawyer says, whilst pointing out that children can feel isolated and lonely.

Other health professionals who work in this field approved the research because it investigated children from pre-school into school. It is widely accepted that the early school years are very important because that is when children learn about social interactions which are central to understanding self esteem. Another positive from the study was that both teachers and parents were asked to report on the child. This addresses the issues of certain groups only seeing one aspect of the child.

Another expert, Roya Samuels, MD, a pediatrician at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park, N.Y. says of the study, “This definitely reinforces what I see on a day-to-day basis in the office. I see a great deal of young patients who are overweight and obese, and the parents do express frustrations about how sometimes their children, especially at a young, tender age, do often get teased at school and how that plays into their self-perception and self-esteem”.

Doctor Samuels also praised the researchers for addressing the mental issues linked with obesity. “It’s not just the physical ailments that we’re concerned about in children who are overweight and obese, but also their psychosocial development,” she says pointing out that the area of mental health is often avoided because of the perception that the physical risks are so great.

However not all experts were as enthusiastic about the report. Paul Ballas, MD, a Philadelphia-based child psychiatrist and representative of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry was critical of the study because he felt that the questionnaire was not comprehensive enough. He asserts that a longer questionnaire should have been used to ensure that no mental problems could be missed.

He also expressed a wish that physical issues should have been addressed in more detail. Obese children, if they have physical problems, can have behavioral issues too. He says, “There’s a direct correlation between sleep problems and obesity in children, and the worse a child’s sleep is, the worse their emotional health is. And there might be a direct relationship between sleep and obesity that’s causing emotional problems and difficulties with social interactions just from the weight itself, independent of the stigma.”

What can Parents do?

Sawyer states that, “It is very important for their future health that we reduce rates of obesity among young children in our community”. He further gives an opinion that, “My advice to parents would be to work hard to help their children achieve the best quality nutrition standards, participate in activities which have the potential to improve fitness levels, and to seek out activities in the community where children’s peer relationships can be fostered and supported”.

Ballas also proposes some radical ideas to aid the parents as they try to help their child overcome obesity and any stigma which is attached. He encourages parents to remove any television which might be in the child’s room. He tells us that by having a television in the child’s room increases the risk of obesity. So he says, “If there’s a TV in their bedroom, just get it out”.

Although he encourages more exercise Ballas cautions that competitive sports may not be the answer. He points out that this could increase the child’s feelings of stigma and failure. He explains, “A lot of kids have a great interest in learning and academics that are not necessarily sports related.”

Activities like music, drama or academic past times can be a great way to get positive social benefits that they may not get from a competitive sport.

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