When Bullying Takes A Toll On Children's Health

07/22/2011 08:03 am ET | Updated Oct 01, 2011
  • Joanna Dolgoff, M.D. Pediatrician, Child Obesity Specialist, and Author, Red Light, Green Light, Eat Right!

The perception surrounding obesity is that it's caused by a lack of exercise and overeating, however, the condition is often driven by other factors, one of which is bullying. Bullying can spell serious trouble for children's health. Overweight kids are targeted more frequently, often while in gym class or playing sports, creating a vicious cycle that makes it more difficult for them to lose weight. Adding insult to injury, many times, children who are not good at dealing with their emotions become emotional eaters as well. These children are also more likely than others to have an ongoing chronic illness later in life, Irish researchers said recently.

The research team used a sample of 8,568 nine-year-old children and their families from Growing Up in Ireland -- the National Longitudinal Study of Children.

Children completed surveys at school and an interviewer administered questionnaires with parents and children in their homes. The findings revealed that obesity and other weight problems are of major concern in Irish children, with girls being more affected.

Another recent study that examines bullying at a younger age identifies overweight children as the primary target. Researchers at the University of Michigan surveyed 821 children ages eight to 11. In the third grade, 15 percent of the children were overweight and 17 percent were considered obese. A quarter of the 821 students admitted to being bullied; however, 45 percent of their mothers reported that their child had been bullied for his or her weight. The study included responses from children, parents and teachers.

The odds of being bullied were 63 percent higher for children who were obese than their classmates of a normal weight, researchers noted, and the bullies did not discriminate based on gender or economic status. Overweight boys were just as likely as girls to be bullied by their peers and, surprisingly, those with good social skills weren't spared from the bullying either.

The study findings indicate that parents and teachers not only need to encourage healthy eating habits for young children, but also need to set a good example and refrain from making negative comments about people who are overweight. Children seem to pick up on this attitude at an early age, which results in bullying behavior.

Bullying is not just a situation wherein bigger children push around smaller or weaker kids. Bullying can have serious effects on your child's physical, mental and emotional well-being. If you notice that your child has been gaining weight, there is also the chance that bullying can be causing this weight gain.

Lack of Physical Activity
I've found that a child who is being bullied is less likely to participate in physical activities such as outdoor games and sports. Since bullies are likely to torment him or her outside the home, your child will probably prefer to avoid such situations by spending most of his time indoors. Video games and watching television are common activities that he or she might prefer. Staying indoors most of the time without any physical activity will contribute to your child's weight gain since they fail to burn calories.

If your child is afraid to join sports or play with other children, try to find other physical activities that he or she might be able to enjoy. For instance, a lot of children find martial arts interesting so you might want to enroll your child in a karate class. Not only will they burn calories with the exercise but their self-esteem will also increase as he or she learns a new skill. You can also make physical activities fun family affairs. Go cycling during the weekend or take a family camping trip.

Eating Comfort Foods to Cope With Emotional Distress
Children are extremely sensitive and less equipped with the tools needed to deal with emotional disturbances like stress and depression. If your child is being bullied at school, they could begin feeling alone, frustrated, angry and stressed out. In order to deal with these negative feelings, your child may seek temporary comfort by eating junk foods such as candy bars, ice cream, donuts, soft drinks and potato chips. As the bullying worsens, your child may reach the point where he or she is completely dependent on comfort foods.

You can help your child by addressing the root of the problem, which is the bullying itself. It will also help if you take away the sugary and fatty junk foods from your house and replace them with healthier snacks. Most importantly, lend your child a listening ear. Listen to their problems and thoughts patiently and be careful not to add to the problem by lecturing or being argumentative.

Parents -- talk to your kids about bullying before they develop bad habits into adulthood. Keeping your kids active and eating healthy will up their self-confidence and teach them the benefits of a healthy lifestyle for years to come.