Obesity Childhood Self Esteem

The physical consequences of obesity in children are clear enough. Obese children have a higher than normal risk of type 2 diabetes and other medical conditions associated with excess weight. The effect of obesity on children’s self-esteem is more difficult to judge. While a link between low self-esteem and childhood obesity has been suggested, the exact nature of the relationship between self-esteem, children and weight gain has been difficult to determine.

Obesity in Children and Low Self-Esteem

Recent studies indicate that childhood obesity does, indeed, affect self-esteem. Children between the ages of 9 and 10 do not seem to suffer from low obesity-related self-esteem, but by ages 13 to 14, the rate of low self-esteem associated with excess weight increases sharply.

A four-year study on self-esteem, children and obesity appeared in the January 2000 issue of Pediatrics. This study examined the self-esteem of 1,520 children from African-American, Hispanic and non-Hispanic white homes. Approximately 17 percent of the children in the study met obesity criteria.

At the start of the study, the children were between 9 and 10 years old. Self-esteem did not differ significantly between obese and non-obese children in this age group.

Four years later, the situation changed. Obese Hispanic and non-Hispanic white girls aged 13 to 14 reported significantly lower levels of self-esteem than girls who were of healthy weight. Obese white and Hispanic girls were four times more likely to experience low self-esteem than non-obese girls of the same age.

Obese boys aged 13 to 14 reported mild but clinically observable decreases in self-esteem compared with non-obese boys of the same age. All groups, whether categorized by gender, economic class or ethnicity, reported some decrease in self-esteem related to obesity.

Consequences of Obesity and Low Self Esteem

Low self-esteem is linked to multiple behavior problems in obese children. The authors of the Pediatrics report note that obese children who reported self-esteem problems were more likely to experience higher rates of loneliness, sadness or nervousness than other children. Children’s self-esteem also influenced their chances of engaging in cigarette smoking or alcohol consumption.

According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA) (2003), obese children are more likely to be teased or bullied than their non-obese counterparts, and depression often develops out of low self-esteem. The APA also notes that children bullied due to obesity are more likely to consider — or attempt — suicide.

Warning signs that an overweight or obese child may be experiencing low self-esteem or depression include:

  • Child admits to considering hurting himself or others
  • Child appears sad, lonely, anxious, withdrawn or angry
  • Child has few friends
  • Child seems obsessed with eating or food
  • Disrupted sleep patterns
  • Lack of interest in activities usually enjoyed by the child
  • Reluctance to engage in social activities or go to school
  • Worsening school grades and absenteeism.

These signs do not automatically indicate low self-esteem, but are indicative of a number of emotional problems. Threats or talk of wishing to injure others or self-injure should always be taken seriously.

Resources

American Psychiatric Association. (2003). Obesity can be harmful to your child’s mental health. Retrieved April 21, 2010, from http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2003-10/apa-ocb100103.php.

Strauss, R. (2000). Childhood obesity and self-esteem. Retrieved April 21, 2010, from http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/reprint/105/1/e15.