Booby traps to catch sneak-eating. Jabs about jiggly thighs. Teasing about tummies and hints about needing to exercise.
Well-meaning parents trying to subtly address their children's weight issues instead might be the biggest bullies in their kids' lives, according to a recent study in the journal Pediatrics about "weight-based victimization."
“There still remains the widespread perception that a little stigma can be a good thing, that it might motivate weight loss,” said Dr. Rebecca M. Puhl, a clinical psychologist and the study's lead author, in an interview with The New York Times.
But the reality is these subtle measures may cause the opposite and worse. According to the study, criticism and teasing can be "extremely damaging." Even poking fun at your kids for their younger "baby fat" days can be hurtful since the study found formerly overweight kids remain vulnerable to weight-based victimization and its ill effects.
The study took 361 teens at two weight loss camps, ages 14 to 18, and surveyed them about bullying and—for the first time in an extensive study, researchers believe—asked them who was bullying them and when.
Sixty-four percent of the teens said they'd been bullied about their weight, and while taunting by their peers was tops, 37 percent said their parents got in on the act, too.
Of those who reported bullying from their parents in the past year, 11 percent said it happened often or very often, 12 percent said sometimes and 14 percent said it was rare.
Researchers cited at-home bullying about weight as a "considerable concern."
"Research indicates that weight-based teasing from multiple sources (e.g., peers and parents) may be associated with increased emotional health problems for youth," the study stated.
According to the most recent California Healthy Kids Survey, a quarter of Poway Unified School District fifth-graders reported being teased about their bodies at school. Nine percent said they consider themselves "too fat," while 13 percent said they were "too skinny." The rest—78 percent—found their bodies to be "just right." (A survey of older PUSD students did not include questions about body image.)
The fallout from weight-based teasing can be extreme, with some youth feeling suicidal. Other effects range from the physical—binge eating, preferring sedentary behaviors—to the mental—low self-esteem and depression.
Researchers offer strategies for addressing children's weight problems, including avoiding "fat talk" and promoting health over weight here.
Who do kids say bullies them about their weight? (% Kids who report bullying)
- Peers (92 percent)
- Friends (70 percent)
- P.E. teachers/sport coaches (42 percent)
- Parents (37 percent)
- Teachers (27 percent)
Source: Pediatrics, "Weight-Based Victimization: Bullying Experiences of Weight Loss Treatment-Seeking Youth."