Researchers say the more children are teased, the more weight they are likely to gain in subsequent years.
For some people, being called out on unhealthy behavior can be a wake-up call to take action.
But for others, it can just reinforce that behavior as part of your permanent identity.
When it comes to children and their weight, a new study suggests the latter may often be the case.
The study focused on 110 preteens and teenagers who were at risk of being overweight or having obesity.
Researchers said children who were teased about their weight were more likely to gain weight more quickly over the next several years.
The researchers also suggested that the more children are teased about their weight, the more weight they’re likely to gain.
The findings highlight not only the dangerous effects teasing can have but also the tricky line adults should try to walk when talking to kids about teasing and the hazards of weight gain.
“It’s really important to ask your children if they’re experiencing any teasing, victimization, or exclusion for any reason, including weight,” said Natasha Schvey, PhD, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of medical and clinical psychology at Uniformed Services University outside of Washington, D.C.
“Sometimes parents feel uncomfortable or assume kids would bring up teasing, but that doesn’t always happen,” she told Healthline. “As far as addressing weight, the general recommendation is to not address weight specifically.”
That’s because weight is a tricky subject with such a great potential to frustrate and scar a child.
“Any talk that’s perceived as being linked to weight is generally experienced as being stigmatizing for children, even just saying something like, ‘You look really skinny in that dress,’” Schvey said.
To try to find out how much of a stigmatizing effect teasing might have, Schvey and her colleagues measured the weight and height of the study participants, who were about 12 years old on average.
Participants were then given a questionnaire that assessed how frequently they had been teased about their weight.
The researchers found that children who had been teased about their weight had a 33 percent greater increase in body mass index per year than kids who hadn’t. They also had a 91 percent increase in fat mass gained per year.
The study concludes that these results may suggest weight-based teasing makes greater weight gain more likely among children at risk of obesity.
But it also notes, “Alternatively, children at high risk for excessive weight gain might be more prone to report (weight-based teasing)” or they could experience both the teasing and weight gain due to an “unmeasured factor.”
Schvey said future research would be needed to demonstrate whether teasing is a cause for the weight gain or just associated with it.
“If so, then work is needed to identify the mechanisms that are putting children at risk,” she said.
It could be that they’re more likely to eat unhealthy diets, or it could be that teasing causes chronic stress, which affects the body’s physiology.
But while this study doesn’t establish a cause and effect between teasing and weight gain, the findings still add to a growing body of knowledge about how those factors interact.
So the new findings were “not entirely surprising” to Heidi Milby, director of programs and field operations at Action for Healthy Kids.
“We know weight is a sensitive issue,” she told Healthline. “And adolescence is a time when kids are already hyperaware of their bodies.”
Being overweight or having obesity is a symptom and outcome of the many issues a child might be facing, Milby said.
So being teased about weight can create what she called a vicious cycle if not addressed early.
But addressing it is tricky.
Data like the new findings can point to the possible dangers of careless wording when talking about weight with a child.
Instead, Schvey suggests talking only about healthy behaviors — getting enough exercise, eating right — but avoiding linking those behaviors to weight or size.
And, she says, instead of just talking about what to do, show them.
“Use modeling,” she says. “You don’t want to just tell the kid to go outside and take a walk, but make it a family activity. So you’re not necessarily doling out advice but modeling it.”
Milby offered the same advice.
“Weight is sensitive for everyone,” she said. “Our mantra is, when talking to kids about weight, instead of focusing on weight, focus on being healthy.”
That can include being active and eating healthy.
She also mentioned the importance of being a role model of health, including involving children in activities such as cooking healthy meals together so it’s more participatory and fun.
Milby would also like to see how actions like those might change the outcomes for kids like the ones in Schvey’s study.
“It would be really interesting to see how positive role models and support system change these outcomes” in future research, she said.
She also would like to see more research on the role of cyber bullying and whether there is a correlation between teasing about weight and children’s ability to focus on school — or even go to school.
“Kids need to be healthy to succeed in school, and success in school ultimately influences success beyond school,” she said.
New research suggests there’s a link between how much an adolescent is teased about their weight and how much weight they gain over the following years.
The research underlines how weight can be a sensitive topic to talk about with kids.
Experts suggest not mentioning weight to children, but to instead talk about healthy behaviors and try to model them.