Is it true that bullies pick on overweight kids more than others? Yes. A study conducted by the University of Michigan and reported in 2010 indicates that obese children were 65% more likely to be bullied than their counterparts in normal weight range; for overweight children the percentage was 13%. This shouldn’t surprise anyone who remembers the bullies they personally witnessed in their school yard.
Looking back at my own experiences in school, I can remember the tears shed by one of my overweight friends when the bullies verbally lashed out at her. She was one of the most intelligent and brightest students in our class. Unfortunately, her great social skills and intelligence did not prevent the continuous verbal lashings about her weight. Not surprisingly, the Michigan study indicates that bullies were not deterred even if the obese child was adept in their social skills or a good student. So, why are overweight children a target of bullies? Is there anything that can be done to discourage such bullying behavior? If your child is overweight, what can you do to build up their self-esteem and coping skills in the face of such bullying?
Why are overweight children and obese children targeted more than other children by bullies?
Dr. Sylvia Rimm, Ph.D., a clinical professor at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio indicates that overweight children may have low self-esteem which may make them targets of bullies. In a study conducted with middle-school age children, Rimm found that children who thought of themselves as very overweight considered themselves as troublemakers, lonely, wimpy, fearful, and sad at times. Oddly, studies also show that overweight children are not only the victim of bullies but at times are the bully. One school of thought may be that the overweight child eats not because he is hungry, but eats because of emotional reasons. The same inability to control such eating habits may carry over into their inability to control their emotional impulses when dealing with other children.
What can be done to discourage bullies from targeting overweight or obese children?
As mentioned above, some children have emotional problems which contribute to their inability to cope and get along with other children. If your child is manifesting severe emotional problems that are hindering him from getting along with others, then you may want to consider professional counseling.
Here are some common sense points that may help you discourage bullying behavior in your child:
- Do not make fun of others that appear physically different or overweight. As a parent this is so important since children learn from good and bad examples.
- Emphasize the value of a person’s inner qualities as opposed to the outward appearance of others.
- Teach your children to respect all people, regardless of their differences.
- Give your children coping skills that will allow them to dismantle explosive-type situations.
- Let your children know that children as well as adults struggle with their weight for various reasons, just as all people struggle with something in their life. That does not make them a “bad person.”
- Teach children that friendship should not be based on physical qualities, but on the trustworthiness and good qualities the person shows.
- Let your children know that to have a friend you need to be a friend.
- Let your children know that bullying or bad behavior will also have negative consequences. Let them know you do not tolerate this type of behavior.
- Let them know good behavior will have positive consequences.
You can also check out these Expert Bullying Prevention Tips.
What can you do to build up your child’s self-esteem if they are overweight?
- Help them learn how to pick genuine friends that will appreciate their fine qualities.
- Help your children to see that others, whether children or adults, do not define who they are.
- Help them see that it is okay to be different. Everyone is different in some way or another.
- Help them to look for the common things that make us all the same.
- Help build qualities that are positive and attainable such as self-control, kindness, and loyalty. Reward and promote good behavior.
- Involve your children in activities that they can succeed in.
- Make daily exercise and healthy eating habits a part of your child’s lifestyle. If possible, exercise as a family. Make it fun!
- Although you want your child to be a healthy weight, do not make weight loss an obsession—emphasize being healthy.
- Help your child learn to diffuse or walk away from a situation that may become explosive.
- Let your child know that it is okay to confide in the teacher or the adult figure in charge if feeling threatened by another child.
- Help your child be forgiving of others despite their imperfections; while also reminding your own child of their imperfections.
- Remind your child that the commercials and media images at times portray people at unrealistic weights.
Whether your child is the victim or the bully, there is no easy answer. However, as a parent, educator, or instructor you have a responsibility to build children from the inside out. Good character doesn’t accidentally happen. An ancient proverb notes that foolishness is tied up in the heart of a boy. So don’t expect perfection. Keep putting good things into your child’s heart, the seat of motivation, and you will reap good results.
Updated December 2013 by Kimberly