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Overweight kids often ride a roller coaster of emotions. They are lonely and sad more often than other children, and they are often bullied, ridiculed and teased by their peers, says Cleveland child psychologist Sylvia Rimm. Many ''fight their sadness by cheating on eating,'' creating a vicious cycle, she says.
Nationally, about 20% to 30% of children are overweight or at risk of becoming so.
Rimm surveyed 5,400 children ages 7 to 14, in 18 states, about their worries, fears, relationships, interests and self-confidence. The children ranged from underweight to very overweight.
She also conducted focus groups with another 300 children to discuss their attitudes about overweight peers, and she interviewed 20 adults who had been heavy as children.
She reveals some of her insights in her new book, Rescuing the Emotional Lives of Overweight Children (Rodale, $21.95), written with her son Eric Rimm, a Harvard nutrition epidemiologist. She's the author of 17 books, including the best-selling See Jane Win.
Q: What did you learn about overweight children from your research?
A: They have so many worries and so many more problems than average-weight kids. (Heavy kids in the survey) felt less intelligent and they felt less confidence. They described themselves less frequently as smart, talented or gifted. They worried about almost everything, including their futures.
Overweight kids are lonely more and sad more than other kids. Their athletic activities are lower and their sedentary activities such as television, computer work and even art and music are greater.
We've got to do something about this to help them get their lives under control. We need to do things as a society. We have to change the abuse and bullying of overweight children.
Q: How are they bullied by their peers?
A: It seems to be acceptable to taunt, joke and ridicule these children. Even the gym teachers say, ''Watch out. They'll smash you.''
And kids say, ''Look at that fatty run.'' A lot of heavy kids are teased as ''gay,'' which among middle-school kids is a bad word.
Q: Do heavy kids think they can get control of their eating?
A: No, they don't believe they can control their eating, so they eat to comfort themselves, and that only causes them to gain more weight. We have to help them get control of their own lives and to set realistic goals. What they'd like most is to be like Britney Spears and, for the boys, some famous athlete.
We have to tell them not to worry about whether or not they lose weight but to eat healthy and exercise. We want them to center on their strengths and other good qualities, and let them know that not every child is going to be the same weight.
Q: Why do some parents struggle so much with their overweight children?
A: The overweight children described their family relationships as worse than average-weight children. Parents who were overweight and are now in control of their weight tend to be very judgmental and very fearful for their children. They want to do everything they possibly can to keep this from happening to their children. They often end up micromanaging and watching every bite their overweight children eat.
Parents need to be coaches instead of judges. Good coaches are enthusiastic, positive and concerned. Being patient during coaching will also help your child to be patient with herself.
Q: What should parents do if one child is overweight and the other children in the family aren't?
A: This is fairly typical. The one with the weight problem becomes a scapegoat, and everyone tells him or her not to eat so much. All children need to eat healthy, and so parents should feel comfortable keeping the Oreos out of the house for all kids, except for special treats. And healthy exercise is for the whole family.
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