700 Children's® – A Blog by Pediatric Experts

8 Ways to Improve a Child's Self-Esteem and Curb Childhood Obesity

Jan 30, 2020
Children eating school lunch

As a pediatric obesity psychologist, I encounter kids and teens with low self-esteem almost daily.  It’s a very unfortunate and sad part of my job. I think most of us reduce this chronic medical condition to numbers – BMI, amount of weight lost, amount of weight gained. What is often left out is the interaction between self-esteem, mood and emotional eating. 

I have met too many kids who tell the same story:  Teasing or bullying about their weight happens at home or at school, makes them feel sad and depressed and causes them to look for comfort in high calorie, processed foods and weight gain. This often results in negative thoughts about themselves, lack of self-confidence and low self-esteem. These kids don’t feel they are able to change their eating habits or increase their physical activity because they always fail.  They say they are used to failing and think the failures are their fault, even if they are not. 

If this sounds like a child you know, the following tips might be helpful to kickstart their self-esteem and begin to help put them on the road to being healthy.

Focus on Self-Esteem

  1. Shift the attention away from weight and towards self-esteem; doing this can help change a child’s weight without directly focusing on it.
  2. Talk about health, NOT weight. Learning how to be healthy is a wonderful goal for all children and does not promote stigmas about body shape/size or create the association that excess weight = bad.

  3. When talking about health, use positive language, such as saying, “Vegetables are a healthy choice for our bodies.” Don’t say, “Potato chips are unhealthy and bad for us.”

  4. Consider enrolling your child in a program that addresses self-esteem and poor body image with the added benefit of increasing physical activity, like a running club or scouting activities. Participating in non-competitive physical activity often increases a child’s feelings of self-worth, regardless of weight.

  5. Use praise to bring attention to your child’s healthy decisions. Praise should always be specific and behavioral. For example, if your child chooses to snack on apples and peanut butter instead of chips, say, “Picking apples and peanut butter was a very healthy choice for your body and will give you lots of good energy!” Don’t simply say, “Good job,” This will help your child learn which behaviors they should do more of and help them develop a sense of mastery.

  6. Start small. Help your child create a small, achievable daily goal (such as adding a fruit or vegetable to their packed lunch or walking to the neighbor’s house and back) and give them praise when they complete the goal. Begin to add onto the goal gradually, helping them realize that they can accomplish what they set out to!

  7. If you notice that your child reaches for extra snacks or larger portions after having a stressful day, talk to them about it and listen to what they say. Give them an opportunity to talk about their feelings and help them develop different ways to cope with their feelings that do not involve food.

  8. Model healthy behaviors, such as the use of age-appropriate coping skills for sadness, stress or worry. Eat fruits and vegetables, as well as a range of other healthy foods. Talk positively about yourself and avoid saying things like “I’m stupid” or “I’m dumb” even if you feel that way.

If you think your child needs additional help with self-esteem and weight, talking to your child’s doctor is often the first step. They may refer you to a counselor or psychologist who can help.

Center for Healthy Weight and Nutrition at Nationwide Children’s Hospital
For more information, click here.

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Eileen Chaves
Eileen Chaves, PhD
Psychiatry and Behavioral Health

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