The Biggest Bully in Your Kid's Life? It Might Be You

Victimization often begins at home, according to a recent study about weight-based bullying.

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.

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."

Liz Ainsworth January 22, 2013 at 03:04 PM
The report does not say what the age for these remarks occurs. There is a saying "people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones." since parents are responsible for the food that most children eat some basic education about how to eat healthily may be a useful thing for parents to learn so they can help their children.
EZDuzit January 22, 2013 at 06:38 PM
Cathy P. January 22, 2013 at 08:35 PM
My first response was "Oh please!" There's a HUGE difference between subtly addressing your child's weight issues and victimization. Bullying is using force to intimidate or coerce. What's next, will requiring your child to keep their room clean or hanging up their wet bath towels be considered bullying too? It's a parent's responsibility to be concerned about the health of their child and set a good example.
Michael Amos January 23, 2013 at 07:15 AM
I think this article is addressing more of the passive aggressive attacks that some parents use. Being a teenage boy I already deal with many weight and body image issues so I cannot imagine having my mother or father drop a passive aggressive comment about my weight could be devastating.
Vito Spago January 23, 2013 at 10:33 AM
I never read the article. I read the title and realized it was pure BS. If that is the worst my fat kid gets in life, then they are lucky. Sheesh.
ATC January 23, 2013 at 03:22 PM
What has our society come to? Raising kids means more than just providing food, shelter, and clothing; it means teaching them right from wrong, healthy eating and lifestyles, treating others with respect...and yes, telling them when they are doing something wrong (heaven forbid that you might hurt their feelings!) and sometimes even disciplining them! Unfortunately, in today's society, any of that is considered by some to be a form of child abuse. So instead, parents should ignore their kids' increasing weight and sentence them to a shortened life of major health problems? AFAIC, THAT should be considered child abuse. When I started high school, I was only 4'11" tall and 78 lbs. Was I teased about that? You bet. Even when I graduated 4 years later, while taller, I was still skinny. Did the teasing damage or cripple me? Of course not. "Sticks & stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me". That's not the case any more; in today's world, nobody's "self esteem" can be damaged. There cannot be any winners, because by definition that would mean that there are also losers (OMG!). There are only "participants", so that everyone feels good about themselves. You don't have to actually perform, because nobody is allowed to point out any possible failings. I feel sorry for these kids being raised that way; they are in for a rude awakening when they become adults and realize that the world is not all rainbows and unicorns.
Dive Turn Work January 23, 2013 at 04:19 PM
I'm not surprised by this. A lot of lousy parents in the country. We have parents who would reject their child for being LGBT and people are surprised that parents would verbally torture their kid for being fat. Doesn't surprise me in the least. Too many breeders not enough parents.
Gabriela Klein January 24, 2013 at 03:40 PM
As a kid, I was called "Stringbeano". 5'10" at 13 years old. Quite coltish. But I stil was a child, with a child's metabolism. Around 15-16 I began to get "womanly" and typical to most girls, friends and hanging out replaced sports and playtime. I gained weight. No, I was never fat, but my father saw the writing on the wall. He took charge, and not very delicately, told me if I didn't do something physical and keep it up, I would at the least be an ordinary, pudgy woman. At the most: FAT. He didn't just say it once or twice. He kept at me. He was annoying. He made ME pick something, anything, that I would stick to. He said he would pay for whatever I wanted to do. I joined the gym! I ended up majoring in PhysEd/Sports Medicine, and have been a trainer now for almost 30 years. I have been a healthy, active woman that has helped many others do the same. And I must admit, observing my middle aged clients, it is much harder to start later in life. Thanks Dad.


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