One reason why children might be more apt to pick on their overweight classmates is that they are taking after adults, says Dr. Davis.
“Children pick up behaviors from adults, so we always have to keep in mind how we’re modeling respect for others around multiple issues, including weight,” he says. “Imagine how many signals kids get about weight just by hearing conversations by adults or seeing advertisements on TV. The messages are everywhere in terms of trying to control weight and be a different size than you are right now.”
Wendy Craig, PhD, a professor of psychology at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, says that bullying and obesity are both major public health concerns that teachers and schools—and not just parents—need to address.
Teachers “are like social architects,” says Craig, who has studied bullying for more than a decade but wasn’t involved in the current study. “They set the tone for what’s acceptable. Teachers reinforce these messages every day in their classroom when they interact with kids.”
In fact, positive interactions with parents may help prevent bullying in the first place, according to another new study, presented today at the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies in Vancouver, B.C.
In that study, researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center analyzed data from the 2007 National Survey of Children’s Health, which included more than 45,000 parents of children between the ages of 10 and 17.
Children whose parents shared ideas and talked often with them were about 40% less likely to bully other children compared to the children of parents who said they didn’t do those things regularly. On the other hand, the children of parents who said they are often angry with them or who feel bothered by them were up to three times more likely to be bullies, according to the study.
Interestingly, previous studies have suggested that obese children are more likely to bully others, in addition to being the victims of bullying. One possible explanation for this, Dr. Lumeng says, is that children who have difficulty staying calm and controlling their impulses to lash out at others may also have a hard time regulating their eating, and may eat for emotional reasons rather than out of hunger.
Overweight children are caught in a vicious circle of self-destructive behavior, Rimm says. “They’re inactive, and they’re sad kids, and they use eating as gratification,” she says. “Of course, the effect is that continued eating is almost their only source of satisfaction, and so it’s a terrible cycle.”
Protecting overweight kids—socially and physically—requires helping them break this cycle, Rimm adds.
“A key thing is to discover their strengths and get them involved and active in extracurricular activities,” she says. “If they concentrate only on their weight, they’re not going to build confidence.”