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Obesity Puts Young Kids at Risk of Social Isolation

Study Shows Being Overweight or Obese Increases the Risk of Peer Problems in Kids by 15% to 20%

When Size Becomes a Stigma continued...

They also liked that researchers queried both teachers and parents, who may see different sides of the same child.

"This definitely reinforces what I see on a day-to-day basis in the office," says Roya Samuels, MD, a pediatrician at Cohen Children's Medical Center in New Hyde Park, N.Y. "I see a great deal of young patients who are overweight and obese, and the parents do express frustrations about how sometimes their children, especially at a young, tender age, do often get teased at school and how that plays into their self-perception and self-esteem.

Samuels also liked the study because it focused on the mental difficulties associated with obesity, a topic that sometimes doesn't get as much attention as the physical risks. "It's not just the physical ailments that we're concerned about in children who are overweight and obese, but also their psychosocial development," she says.

Other experts said they wished the researchers had used longer questionnaires to measure mental problems. With shorter tools, like the ones used in the study, other mental problems could have been missed, says Paul Ballas, MD, a Philadelphia-based child psychiatrist and representative of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Ballas also wished researchers had tried to tease out the effects of physical problems the obese kids may have been experiencing and their behavior.

"There's a direct correlation between sleep problems and obesity in children, and the worse a child's sleep is, the worse their emotional health is," he says. "And there might be a direct relationship between sleep and obesity that's causing emotional problems and difficulties with social interactions just from the weight itself, independent of the stigma."

Advice to Parents

"It is very important for their future health that we reduce rates of obesity among young children in our community," Sawyer says.

"My advice to parents would be to work hard to help their children achieve the best quality nutrition standards, participate in activities which have the potential to improve fitness levels, and to seek out activities in the community where children's peer relationships can be fostered and supported," he says.

Ballas says there are some concrete steps parents can take to help their children overcome the stigma of being obese.

"If there's a TV in their bedroom, just get it out," says Ballas. "If there's a TV in their bedroom it substantially increases the chance for obesity and sleep problems, and getting the TV out of the room reduces those chances."

Also encourage exercise, but maybe not competitive sports, which can heighten an overweight or obese child's sense of stigma and failure, according to Ballas. "A lot of kids have a great interest in learning and academics that are not necessarily sports related."

Ballas says parents should nourish a child's interest in group activities like music, academic teams, or drama. "Those are things that can be encouraged that may provide positive social benefits that they may not be able to get from sports."

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