Being overweight can be frustrating and discouraging, and can lead to a cascade of negative feelings and emotions. We all know that. And at the same time, the negative feelings can also trigger emotional eating, which leads to further weight gain. It’s a vicious cycle that many of us have lived through and that your child may very well be dealing with right now.
As important as it is to take into account the emotional life of obese individuals, it’s equally important to be aware that emotions can trigger weight gain in the first place, as well as maintain or perpetuate the condition. So while feelings like depression and low self-esteem can be a result of obesity, what you may not be aware of is that these chronic stressors can trigger hormone responses that can cause obesity.
Emotional stresses are basically telling our children’s bodies, that for whatever reason, they are not in a safe situation. And in the same way that famine or a long winter equals unsafe, causing their bodies to store more fat and gain weight, certain emotional stresses in some children will also mean unsafe, triggering the same FAT switch response. This feeling of being unsafe might not be immediately obvious to parents, or even the child, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t there.
One study, which looked at adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) in over seventeen thousand cases, found a statistically significant correlation between childhood trauma and health problems later in life. In other words, if a child experiences a negative, traumatic event, as an adult they are much more likely to experience health problems, such as heart disease, cancer, depression, chronic fatigue, and obesity.
Emotional trauma, past or present, can lead to stress and weight gain, so the emotional threat doesn’t have to be clear and present. The threat doesn’t even have to be real, as a body can respond to either real or perceived danger by gaining weight.
Regardless of whether or not a danger, threat, or stress is real from an outsider’s perspective, we always need to err on the side of caution when dealing with our children’s emotional lives. If the threat is real to them, then their bodies will respond accordingly. The dangers, threats, and stresses that humans experience in simpler societies and cultures are nothing like the stresses of the modern-day world.
Our children are not naturally suited to a life bombarded with packed schedules, hurried mealtimes, violent television shows and video games, and social media overload. They’re absolutely not designed to cope well with mental and emotional stresses like parental relationship problems, financial troubles, chronic health problems, and broken families. Some children react to family breakups by becoming delinquents, while others become withdrawn or indifferent. And still others keep the stress inside themselves and gain weight.
Children are also particularly ill-equipped to deal with the stresses that result from trying to live up to the false ideals, especially the false body ideals, portrayed in the media. Some would consider media exposure and influence as a relatively small problem when compared with some of the other stresses that can traumatize children. These include:
A culture of violence: This culture can be real, as in the reality of gang gunfights in the streets of a neighborhood, but it can also be virtual, like exposing kids to violent video games, television, movies, or even the violence in television news. After all, our bodies were never designed to respond to depictions of violence, only to real-life threats. Your body will still respond to this depicted violence as if it’s just next door.
It will become a chronic stress because you can’t get away from it, unless you make a conscious effort to distance yourself from it. If it’s real violence, you might have to move your family away physically, like moving away from your neighborhood if you can. If this isn’t an option, you might have to create emotional distance by training yourself to ignore it. If it’s virtual violence, you always have the option of turning off the games or television your kids are watching. Unfortunately, children aren’t as good at switching off as adults are, which is why, as the guardians of their emotional lives, we have to take charge and do the switching off for them.
An environment of abuse: Abuse takes many forms. It can be mental, emotional, physical, or sexual. We know of cases in which kids in a sexual abuse situation became obese in order to become unattractive to their abuser and then maintained that obesity into adulthood. Abuse doesn’t necessarily have to be direct either. Drug abuse is a whole other level of trauma and again, it doesn’t have to be direct. It’s traumatizing to be the child of a drug addict or alcoholic, especially a violent one. Children may gain weight to cushion against the blows of an abusive relative or family member or use food to fill a void of love.
Bullying: Although we could classify bullying as a form of abuse, we really must treat it as a separate issue. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, bullying doesn’t necessarily only come from other children who might not know better, but also from adults, who ought to know better. Parents, family members, doctors, teachers, and coaches can shame children through comments in a misguided effort to help or “inspire” them, as if obese children need motivation. No one needs this kind of motivation.
Attempting to shame children through verbal, psychological, and emotional abuse is about as enlightened as attempting to cure asthma by shouting at a kid while he or she is having an attack. Bullying, if anything, is only going to make obese children want to shield themselves with more weight and turn to food as a refuge to fill their emotional void.
Most children and teens want the respect of their peers. For overweight kids, this is often the one thing that they don’t get. Bullying is something that overweight children almost always experience. The thing about bullying is that it can show up in really subtle and often unintentional ways. For example, there’s nothing more disheartening or dispiriting when you’re overweight than wearing clothes that don’t fit. They’re too tight, they’re unflattering, and they’re uncomfortable. They constantly remind you of your weight problem. This is often part of the general humiliation associated with being an overweight kid. School uniforms are particularly problematic because they’re mass-produced in a way that assumes thinness. With school uniforms, you might have to campaign for bigger sizes. In the wider commercial world, where there is more choice, the goal is to keep potential humiliation to a minimum.
We suggest buying clothes at a regular store that carries larger sizes, or if there’s one available, buy at a store that specializes in plus-size clothing. These stores are usually great because they’re stocked with clothing that’s especially designed to look flattering on larger bodies, and they do things with a bit more thought and sensitivity toward this market than they otherwise might. Another alternative is to purchase from plus-size stores’ catalogs, so that your kids can make clothing choices without the potential embarrassment of going to a store dedicated to larger sizes.
How you deal with all these stresses depends on your means and the level of seriousness of the trauma. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to deal with serious abuse issues like alcoholism or sexual abuse without some form of professional intervention, so if you know, or even suspect, that your child might be in a situation of abuse, we’d advise getting professional help.
There are also many different types of therapy and services available to help both adults and children deal with emotional stress. Many communities have support organizations for families in need. Work with your pediatrician or family practice doctor for referrals. If you have access to the Internet, feel free to access our website online for a listing of these resources.
This is an edited excerpt from Dr. Riba’s book Fit Kids Revolution. Get your copy today!