Psychological Effects of Childhood Obesity

Written by Dr Malini Singh, Psychologist, Change for Life

Dr Angraj Khillan, Consultant Paediatrician Western Specialist Care Centre

The global prevalence of childhood obesity is increasing at an alarming rate with the World Health Organisation rating childhood obesity as among the most serious public health concerns.   Globally, over 340 million children and adolescents between the ages of 2-17 were considered overweight or obese in 2016.  In Australia 1 in 4 or 25% of all children between the ages of 2-17 years are now considered overweight or obese (triple the number since 1980).

Obesity in childhood and into adolescence can result in a number of psychological issues.  These issues particularly prevalent in the teenage years given the  unique social atmosphere this age group faces.  Here’s what you parents should know about the psychological effects of childhood and adolescent obesity, so that you may help your child deal with challenges.

One issue that appears as a result of obesity are self-esteem problems.  Children and teens can feel quite alone and self-conscious as they are very aware of how others see and perceive them.  A lot of these perceptions hinge on superficial attributes such as clothes, facial attractiveness, and weight and this could make overweight kids feel out of place compared to their “slimmer” peers.  Research has shown that overweight or obese children suffer from low levels of self-esteem and this can make them unhappy with themselves not just about their appearance but also socially.

Low self-esteem tends to lead to higher levels of depression.  This is particularly prevalent in children during the middle and high school years.  Depression in overweight and obese children is exasperated in when they fixate on how other people react to them.  Unfortunately research has also shown that overweight and obese children tend to elicit more negative reactions compared to average weight peers.  It is important to note that children’s and adolescents psychological well being rests to a large degree on positive social interactions with their peers and the lack of this can lead to higher levels of depression in this age group.

Lower self-esteem and higher depression can also lead to more behavioural problems in this age group.  Indeed, research has shown that parents of overweight and obese children tend to report more behavioural issues compared to parents of average weight children.  These issues can be more “internalized” whereby issues such as anger is directed inward leading to higher depression, anxiety, and eating issues.  The problems can also be “externalized” where by issues such as aggression, defiance, and back talk can become a concern.  The internalizing and externalizing issues can also have a negative impact on the child’s school and social performance.  Psychologists are trained in working with anxiety, depression, and self-esteem issues and teaching children healthier, more effective ways to cope.

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