Depression in Overweight Children

Depression in Overweight Children

Overweight children are often teased by their peers or even family members. This can put them at risk for self-esteem issues and depression.

By Diane Griffith, Staff Writer, myOptumHealth

When children are overweight, more than their physical health can be threatened. The emotional consequences of being overweight or obese in childhood last a lifetime. Teasing and taunting may damage a child's self-esteem and body image. And that, in turn, can lead to depression, anxiety, and behavioral problems.

Children who are picked on because of their weight are more likely than others to be targeted by bullies. They are also at risk for becoming bullies themselves.

Some studies on depression in overweight children have found only small differences in the incidence of self-esteem issues and depression when compared to peers. But other studies have found that overweight kids, especially those who are picked on or who face other negative effects of the social stigma attached to being overweight, have higher rates of depression and other psychological issues. Overall, between one third and one half of overweight children experience depression.

Obesity and suicide
With depression comes an increased risk of suicide. According to some studies, one child in four who has been bullied or teased because of weight issues has had thoughts of suicide. And nearly one in 10 has actually attempted it. Call 9-1-1 if you think a child is in immediate danger of committing suicide. Also seek emergency care if your child is threatening to harm himself or others. Talk to your doctor about any concerns you might have.

If you see any of the following signs, talk with your doctor or a mental health professional about your child's emotional health. It's possible your child could be suffering from anxiety or depression. Does your child:

  • Lack energy?
  • Seem withdrawn and no longer interested in social relationships?
  • Avoid activities that once were considered fun?
  • Seem sad, lonely, or angry?
  • Have trouble making friends?
  • Frequently ask to stay home from school?
  • Think about suicide - or harming someone else?

How you can help
It's important to concentrate not just on physical health, but to also keep an eye on your child's emotional wellness. These suggestions can help you do both:

  • Ask your child about why he or she overeats. Explain that eating to heal pain can become a vicious cycle. If your child eats because he or she is depressed, the depression may only intensify as your child's weight continues to climb. Ask your child to talk to you about his or her feelings instead of turning to food for comfort. Then you can work together to find constructive ways to deal with those feelings.
  • Never criticize your child's weight. Humiliation won't cure a weight problem, but it's likely to affect a child's emotional well-being. It's also likely to backfire if your goal is to help your child lose weight.
  • Instead of insisting that your child eat less, talk about making smart food choices. Doing so will help your child feel healthy and energetic.
  • Help your child stay active. Let your child see running and jumping as play, not work. Stay active as a family so your child won't feel that he or she is being pushed to exercise to lose weight. The benefits of physical activity can be twofold. Not only can it help with weight reduction, but it may also ease the symptoms of depression.
  • Let your child know that he or she is loved, accepted, and appreciated. Your child will learn that weight doesn't affect his or her value.
  • Praise your child's athletic, creative, or intellectual abilities. Focus on your child's positive qualities.

The emotional effects of childhood obesity can last into adulthood. Parents who are accepting and supportive play an important role in protecting an overweight child's self-esteem. With strong parental support, kids often focus less on their personal appearances and more on their positive qualities.

Treating depression in your child
If your child is depressed, talk to the doctor. When depression goes untreated, weight-loss attempts often fail. This can make your child's self-esteem problems even worse, and also make it harder to stick to any future weight-loss programs.


  • American Psychiatric Association. Obesity can be harmful to your child's mental health. Accessed: 08/11/2010
  • Zametkin AJ, Zoon CK, Klein HW, Munson S. Psychiatric aspects of child and adolescent obesity: a review of the past 10 years. Focus: 2004;2(4):625-641.
  • Sjoberg RL, Nilsson KW, Leppert J. Obesity, shame, and depression in school-aged children: a population-based study. Pediatrics. 2005;116(3):e389-e392.
  • Janssen I, Craig WM, Boyce WF, Pickett W. Associations between overweight and obesity with bullying behaviors in school-aged children. Pediatrics: 2004;113(5):1187-1194.
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Overweight in children and adolescents. Accessed August 11, 2010. Accessed:08/11/2010
  • Puhl RM, Latner JD. Stigma, obesity, and health of the nation's children. Psychological Bulletin. 2007;133(4):557-580.

Copyright © 2011 myOptumHealth.