The Psychological Consequences of Obesity in Children and Teens

For many overweight children and teens, their physical health and well-being is the least of their problems. Much more relevant is the teasing, taunting and poor treatment they receive from other children at school and in the community. And for many, it’s not only how others think of them, but how they think of themselves. A sizable percentage of overweight kids – particularly girls – are clinically depressed as a result of a preoccupation with being overweight.

The evidence on the psychological consequences of obesity for teens is piling up. A recent survey reveals that obese children rate their quality of life as low as those of young cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Other studies are reporting increased rates of depression, low self-esteem and social isolation, which are then manifest in significant behavioral problems. As these children grow up, they are less likely to be accepted into college, less likely to get married, and more likely to occupy a lower socioeconomic status.

It might be true that overweight kids have always been hard on themselves, and have always been mistreated. But a 2001 study by Latner and Stunkard demonstrates that the situation has gotten worse. The study replicated a 1961 study of stigma in childhood obesity that asked children to rank six drawings of same-sex children with obesity, various disabilities, or no disability (“healthy”) in order of how well they liked each child. The results were fascinating but sad. Although children in both the 1961 and 2001 studies liked the drawing of the obese child the least (i.e., less than the other disabilities), the obese child was liked significantly less in the 2001 study than in the 1961 study.

Being overweight can not only lead to cardiovascular, orthopaedic, gastrointestinal, respiratory, hormonal, neurological, and metabolic diseases such as diabetes, it can also manifest itself through psychological difficulties, which may require the assistance of a trained professional.

Some residential weight loss programs for overweight teens combine the psychological therapy with behavior change therapy to improve self-esteem as well as physical health. If your overweight teen or an overweight teen you know is suffering in some of the ways described above, you may want to consider or suggest a residential weight loss program.

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