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Helping obese children battle depression and low self-esteem     Send a link to a friend

[JUNE 15, 2004]  URBANA -- Parents shouldn't be afraid to ask for support if their overweight child seems depressed, said Laurie Kramer, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor of family studies at the University of Illinois.

A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that obese children score their quality of life as low as young cancer patients on chemotherapy do. Kramer said that parents should watch for signs of low self-esteem, sadness or loneliness in their children and not be afraid to initiate conversation about it.

"Don't assume that your child has issues surrounding his body image. Not all overweight children do. But, if you suspect a problem exists, ask your child to tell you how he feels about himself, if being overweight is part of it, and what he wants to do about it. Then help your child make lifestyle changes that will enable him to achieve his goal," Kramer said.

Kramer said it's important that parents stay positive in their comments. "There's a right way and a wrong way to motivate. Don't nag. It's better to provide healthful meals and encourage activities that will lead to new patterns of behavior," she said.

Such efforts often involve changing the family culture, which is no small undertaking, she added. Families may need to learn to eat very differently. "We should all learn to stop eating when we begin to feel full," she said.

If children are used to reaching for second and even third helpings, parents can encourage better eating patterns by providing healthier food choices that are easier on the waistline. "If a child has a second helping of salad, it's not the same as having a second helping of mashed potatoes," she added.


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The psychologist suggested that parents take the lead in getting families to become active together. "Go to the Y and swim, or go roller-skating as a family. There are ways to make this fun," she said.

If teens resist participating in activity with the family, parents can encourage them to exercise with their friends. Teens who take up a new sport like tennis may find a bonus in building new friendships as they become more active.

But some children need more help than their families can give them, Kramer said. "In our culture, there's a lot of emphasis on looking good. You can tell your daughter that what really matters is that she's beautiful inside, but if she's being teased in gym class, it may be hard for her to believe you," she said.

"Help your child find social situations and relationships in which she feels comfortable, and keep your eye out for signs that your child may be battling depression as well as a weight problem.

"Don't be afraid to seek the help of a physician or counselor if you think your child's self-esteem is dangerously low," Kramer said.

Warning signs of depression

  • Feeling sad or irritable
  • Loss of interest in activities that were once pleasurable
  • Excessive fatigue or trouble sleeping
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • In more extreme cases, talk about death or suicide or suicidal behaviors

[University of Illinois news release]

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