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When an Overweight Child is Bullied

QUESTION: My eight-year-old is overweight and children at school bully him. Recently he came in second in the 50 yard dash and his classmates said they wouldn't be his friend because he didn't come in first. How can I help him lose weight and make some friends?

ANSWER: Your son is becoming the scapegoat at his school. You are right to be concerned for him. Now is the time to teach him a successful philosophy for coping with the slings and arrows of life. Your actions can spell the difference between character development or a negative self-image that sticks.

Talk to your son about the definition of friendship. Let him know that a true friend will value him regardless of his performance or his weight. Ask him to separate real friends from bullies. Show him how to direct his attention to his successes and nurture an attitude of self-respect.

A martial arts such as Akido, or some other form of physical discipline, can help him develop self-esteem and a healthy attitude toward adversity. Boys of this age are apt to embrace the concept of the "spiritual warrior," which teaches the power of believing in themselves, despite negativity from others. He can begin to develop a positive inner voice to combat outer insults.

Teach him how to approach adversity by talking about your own similar experiences as a child and what you learned. Help him to "fight back" by refusing to allow others to take his accomplishments from him. Point out, too, that children often respond in this way because they are jealous of his success: Insults temporarily make them feel powerful. Let him know that when children (and adults) bully, they are compensating for their own feelings of inadequacy. After all, could the kids who taunted him about not coming in first at the school race even place at all?

If your son's weight is a health issue, bring this up to him. But do not give him the message that if he loses weight he will have friends. This association would only further reinforce looking outside of himself for winning acceptance. Help him identify healthy foods and assist him in eating healthy because his body deserves it, not for social reasons.

Help your child succeed by not having a lot of junk food around the house. Establish an engaging schedule of after school activities so that he does not turn to food for comfort out of boredom. Instead, create opportunities for him to be successful, whether it be swimming lessons, karate, art or music.

Stay in touch with your child about his daily school life. Be willing to strategize with him about the best responses to scapegoating. Help him identify the children who do respond favorably to him and direct him toward these relationships.

Talk to him about what defines a good friend, as well as how to be a good friend to others. Comfort and soothe him when he is down. Help him to recover and direct his energies toward his after school activities when his school day has been difficult.

As your son directs his attention towards his successes and garners the attitude of a "warrior," he will likely thwart the children's attempts to manipulate him. His lack of response to their demands will cause them to grow bored of teasing him. Then he will be on his way to making true friends. If you use this school experience as an opportunity for learning, he cannot lose!


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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