Does being obese affect emotional wellbeing in children and adolescents?
Research suggests that some, but not all, children and adolescents with obesity will experience difficulties with their emotional wellbeing such as low mood or self-esteem.
Obesity and Emotional Wellbeing in Children: The Impacts
So, what factors determine whether a child’s emotional health will be negatively impacted by carrying excess weight? Research is beginning to explore this area in order to better help kids cope, and to improve the outcomes of obesity treatment and programs.
What we know:
Obesity alone does not necessarily impact negatively on a child’s wellbeing; instead obesity appears to exert much of its impacts indirectly, such as through:
- increasing their dissatisfaction with their body, weight or shape, including “feeling fat”;
- feelings of body-related guilt and shame, which in turn are associated with reduced self-esteem (a good predictor of emotional wellbeing);
- believing they are less healthy or physically able (their ability to participate fully in play or sport);
- being more likely to experience teasing, or negative comments from others.
Some children experience a sense of not being in control of their eating. This can include feeling like they are unable to control what, or how much they eat. Sometimes, but not always, this sense will be associated with eating a large amount of food in a single sitting or “binge eating”. Experiencing loss-of-control eating is not just distressing in the moment, it can also make a child feel guilty or ashamed afterwards – and can be associated with a greater risk of weight gain in the future.
Research is continuing, and over time more contributing factors will be identified as will their relative importance (ie how much they each contribute to impacts on emotional wellbeing in children). For example, there is initial evidence that body dissatisfaction is a particularly important factor.
Supporting Your Child’s Physical and Emotional Wellbeing
So what does this all mean?
If your child is overweight or obese then there are a number of ways you can support them in achieving better physical and emotional health.
Weight loss is important – but not the be-all and end-all.
Helping your child achieve and maintain a healthier weight is an obvious target, and one that may have some flow-on effects on improving their emotional wellbeing.
With their training in understanding behaviour and motivation, you might choose to include a psychologist in your child’s health team to support them in this process. Helping your child to improve their health and their ability to participate in physical activities may also support their wellbeing, regardless of their weight status.
Interventions to improve your child’s emotional wellbeing can be commenced at any weight, and don’t rely on weight loss to achieve a benefit. These include interventions aimed at:
- improving their sense of control over their eating;
- improving their body image;
- improving their self-esteem;
- enhancing their emotional resilience, particularly in relation to teasing.
There are a number of things you can do as a parent, to support your child or adolescent’s emotional wellbeing while they are coping with excess weight. These might include:
- Encouraging your child or adolescent to be active. Get out and about with them, and engage in lots of fun, active leisure activities.
- Focus on activity as a means to achieve functional fitness and enjoyment – such as being fit enough to engage in play and sports, and the energy to concentrate all day at school. Avoid framing the purpose of exercise as being to achieve weight-loss or a particular body shape.
- Limit screen time, and other sedentary activities.
- Encourage your child or adolescent to get sufficient sleep (poor sleep contributes to the risk of obesity, and difficulties with emotional wellbeing).
- Provide your child with lots of positive reinforcement about their strengths, their positive values, efforts and personality traits. Help support them in developing a good self-esteem that is not reliant on their body weight.
- Be careful about the language that the family uses around weight – such as describing lower weight as being “better” or commenting about other people’s weight, be it high or low.
- Give your child the knowledge and skills that they need to maintain a healthy diet. This might include things such as teaching them about a healthy diet, helping them to read food labels, and teaching them how to cook meals from scratch.
If you would like further support for helping your child better manage the emotional impacts of being overweight or obese, consider making an appointment to see me at M1 Psychology.
Author: Kelly Gall, BSc (Hons), M Psych (Health), M Clin Psych, MAPS, MCHP.
Kelly Gall is a Health Psychologist with a wide variety of interests who is passionate about helping clients improve their physical and emotional wellbeing. Kelly develops tailored, holistic and evidence-based treatment plans that incorporate psychological, physical and social strategies aimed at empowering her clients to achieve relief from psychological symptoms and improve their health. Find out more on her website, Healthy Inside and Out.
To make an appointment with Health Psychologist Kelly Gall, please call (07) 3067 9129 or you can book online today.
- Loth KA, Mond J, Wall M, Neumark-Sztainer, D. Weight Status and Emotional Well-being:Longitudinal Findings from Project EAT. J Pediatr Psychol 2011;36:216-225.
- Bolton K, Kremer P, Rossthorn N, Gibbs L, Waters E, Swinburn B, de Silva A. The effect of gender and age of the association between weight status and health-related quality of life in Australian adolescents. BMC Public Health 2014;14:398.