Helping your child when they’re being bullied about their weight

Expert tips for reducing weight stigma around your child.
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By Mandy Sacher

When your child is being bullied for their weight, it’s heartbreaking – for them and you. So what can you do to help?

The first thing you can do for your child is to simply listen and let them know that you’re there for them. Bullying of any kind is absolutely unacceptable but weight-related bullying (also known as weight bias, weight stigma, or weight discrimination) is sadly an all-too common phenomenon.

Mandy Sacher; Paediatric Nutritionist and author of Wholesome Child is passionate about the connection between weight and self-esteem.

In 2017, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and The Obesity Society issued a policy statement on the stigma experienced by children and adolescents who are overweight and how it can affect their social, psychological and physical wellbeing.

According to the AAP statement, weight stigma in children can lead to teasing or social isolation, which can impair their quality of life. One international study added that students, parents and teachers identified weight-based bullying as the most common form of bullying by a substantial margin (over others such as race/ethnicity, sexual orientation and religion). Research also shows that young people who are bullied about their weight are more vulnerable to depression, low self-esteem and poor body image.

“Remind them that bullying is wrong, it’s not their fault and they do not deserve it,”

The connection between weight and self-esteem has long been a topic close to my heart. The MEND program, which I helped my brother Dr Paul Sacher develop, is about empowering young people and supporting their families, moving the emphasis from food and dieting to health, feeling strong and getting active.

The main thing you can do to help your child in this situation is to help them feel safe and secure through building up their self-esteem. Reinforce the message that their amazing strengths and qualities have nothing to do with body weight or appearance.

Remind them that bullying is wrong, it’s not their fault and they do not deserve it. Also, let them know that there are things you can do together to handle this issue like going to see their teacher, principal or school counsellor to work towards a solution. Finally, take the opportunity to consider potential weight stigma at home, of which friends and family members can be sources. As the AAP states, “A first step in addressing weight stigma is to become aware of one’s own potential attitudes and assumptions about body weight.”

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Some well-meaning people, including family members, may believe that weight shaming and blaming will motivate children to change their eating and activity habits. Instead, it is likely to do just the opposite. Here are some tips taken from the MEND program on reducing weight stigma around your child:

* Recognise that there are many causes of obesity in childhood. These include genetic, environmental and socioeconomic factors, plus cultural practices, family traditions and personal choices.

* Use neutral, non-stigmatising language. When speaking to children about their weight, try “your weight” or “above a healthy weight for your height” instead of using “fat” or “obese”. Also, choose people-first language that puts the person before the medical condition. For example, use “a child with obesity” instead of “an obese child.”

* Focus on health rather than size. Emphasising a child’s size and need for weight loss may not be appropriate and can lead to weight stigma. Instead, focus on making food and activity choices that will help children have energy and be healthy.

* Let children know that they are worth more than their weight. If children are bullied because of their weight, they may believe that what they look like is more important than who they are. Instead, praise them for their good qualities, such as their personality, intelligence, talents or helpfulness. Support and acknowledge their efforts and successes in making positive lifestyle changes.

Weight stigma and bullying can lead to unhealthy eating behaviours, decreased physical activity, social isolation and excess weight gain over time. From a nutritional standpoint, the best thing you can do is support your child to eat well. Depression and low self-esteem are often the root cause of overeating and dislike of physical activity in children so it’s vital that adults role-model healthy eating behaviours and positive discussions around food and body image.

*To learn more about Mandy Sacher please visit the Wholesome Child website.

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