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Weight Affects Self Perception Of Kids As Early As Kindergarten

July 10, 2009

A new study by researchers at the University of Missouri found that overweight children as young as 5 years old begin to have more feelings of depression, anxiety and loneliness than children of normal weight.

These feelings grow progressively worse over time for both boys and girls who are persistently overweight, the researchers reported.

“I think there’s a tendency to believe that boys don’t experience those consequences until later,” Dr. Sara Gable of the University of Missouri in Columbia told Reuters.

“These findings suggest that they are experiencing some of these negative consequences earlier than may have been believed.”

Dr. Gable and her colleagues studied 8,000 children, dividing them into three different groups.  One group included children who were overweight through kindergarten, 1st grade and 3rd grade.  A second group included kids who were only overweight as 3rd graders, while a third group consisted of kids who were never overweight.

The researchers then examined teachers’ perceptions of students in kindergarten, first grade, and third grade, and had the children complete questionnaires describing their own well being.

The teachers rated the overweight girls and those who were overweight in 3rd grade as having less interpersonal skills than girls who were never overweight.  Throughout the study, the teachers also rated the overweight girls as having less self-control.  The differences seen between the overweight girls and normal-weight girls increased over time.

In contrast, a boy’s weight status had no influence the teachers’ perceptions about his social or self-control skills. In fact, the overweight boys were actually seen as displaying less aggression and fewer incidences of acting-out than normal weight boys.  The exact opposite held true for girls, with the teachers rating the overweight girls as displaying more “externalizing” behaviors.

The overweight children in the study also perceived themselves as having less interpersonal skills and lower social standing, and reported having more “internalizing” behaviors such as depression and withdrawal from social situations.

According to Dr. Gable, the teachers’ differing perceptions of overweight children who were not technically overweight for the first time until the 3rd grade suggest that even kids who may have been on the high side of normal weight very early still experience bias.

Overweight should not be considered an “either-or” concept, Gable said, but rather as a continuum.   She advises parents to consider a child’s weight status before the child is officially overweight.

But how to best help kids shed excess pounds is not clear, Gable acknowledged.  Working parents in particular face challenges in helping their kids be more active and eat healthier, she said.

The problem is only getting worse with the current economic downturn, she added.

Parents should do what they can, Gable advised.  This could mean giving a child a plain carrot instead of one slathered with high-calorie dressing, or having children draw pictures instead of watching TV.

“In terms of what’s the solution — for families it’s baby steps.”

The research was published in the journal Applied Developmental Science.

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