When your child is being bullied for his or her weight, it's heartbreaking — for your child and for you. So what can you do to help?
Weight-related bullying (also known as weight bias, weight stigma, or weight discrimination) is sadly an all-too common phenomenon. In 2017, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Obesity Society issued a policy statement on the stigma experienced by children and adolescents who are overweight and how it can affect their social, psychological, and physical wellbeing.
According to the AAP statement, weight stigma in children can lead to teasing or social isolation, which can impair their quality of life. One international study added that students, parents, and teachers identified weight-based bullying as the most common form of bullying by a substantial margin (over others such as race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, and religion). Research also shows that young people who are bullied about their weight are more vulnerable to depression, low self-esteem, and poor body image.
The connection between weight and self-esteem has long been a topic close to my heart. The MEND program, which I helped my brother, Paul Sacher, PhD develop, is about empowering young people and supporting their families, moving the emphasis from food and dieting to health, feeling strong, and getting active.
How to Help Your Child
The main thing you can do to help your child in this situation is to help him or her feel safe and secure through building up self-esteem. Reinforce the message that your kid's amazing strengths and qualities have nothing to do with body weight or appearance.
Remind your kids that bullying is wrong, it's not their fault, and that they do not deserve it. Also, let them know that there are things you can do together to handle this issue, like going to see their teacher, principal, or school counselor to work towards a solution. Finally, take the opportunity to consider potential weight stigma at home, of which friends and family members can be sources. As the AAP states, "A first step in addressing weight stigma is to become aware of one's own potential attitudes and assumptions about body weight."
Some well-meaning people, including family members, may believe that weight-shaming and blaming will motivate children to change their eating and activity habits. Instead, it is likely to do just the opposite. Here are some tips taken from the MEND program on reducing weight stigma around your child:
1. Recognize that there are many causes of obesity in childhood.
These include genetic, environmental, and socioeconomic factors, along with cultural practices, family traditions, and personal choices.
2. Use neutral, non-stigmatizing language.
When speaking to children about their weight, try "your weight" or "above a healthy weight for your height" instead of using "fat" or "obese." Also, choose people-first language that puts the person before the medical condition. For example, use "a child with obesity" instead of "an obese child."
3. Focus on health rather than size.
Emphasizing a child's size and need for weight loss may not be appropriate and can lead to weight stigma. Instead, focus on making food and activity choices that will help children have energy and be healthy.
4. Let children know that they are worth more than their weight.
If children are bullied because of their weight, they may believe that what they look like is more important than who they are. Instead, praise them for their good qualities, such as their personality, intelligence, talents, or helpfulness. Support and acknowledge their efforts and successes in making positive lifestyle changes.
Weight stigma and bullying can lead to unhealthy eating behaviors, decreased physical activity, social isolation, and excess weight gain over time. From a nutritional standpoint, the best thing you can do is support your child in eating well. Depression and low self-esteem are often the root cause of overeating and dislike of physical activity in children, so it's vital that adults model healthy eating behaviors and positive discussions around food and body image.