School experiences can stay with us for the rest of our lives. If we're fortunate, those times are fun, exciting and filled with personal growth. But for some, memory lane is filled with potholes, rusty nails and dead ends.
As a psychologist and expert in weight and eating, I'm able to help people get to the bottom of problems that often have their roots in our early school years. No matter how much time has passed, those long-ago experiences can get in the way of emotional and, sometimes, physical health.
Dale, a patient with an eating disorder, shared the following story: "I was an overweight child. Although I'm not fat anymore, I don't go to school reunions because I don't have any good memories of those years. My school days usually began with a feeling of dread. It wasn't a matter of if I would get picked on about being fat that day but when and where."
People assumed that because Dale was no longer overweight, he no longer had a weight problem. Nothing could be further from the truth. Long after the weight was lost, Dale struggled with eating issues and still perceived himself as fat. In addition, the emotional impact of his childhood traumas continued to plague him as an adult. His eating disorder interfered with his progress in college, his intimate relationships and his general happiness in life.
Children don't have the psychological sophistication to understand why they are being picked on. If they are taunted, they believe that something is fundamentally wrong with them.
This belief can grow into a conviction that they are not worthwhile individuals. So the taunted child may become an adult who lacks self-esteem in all areas, not just body weight.
It's important for the adults in the lives of overweight children to be sensitive to signs that they are being treated unjustly.
A few things to keep in mind are:
-- If your child is being picked on because of weight, speak to him or her without judgment. Show compassion and a willingness to listen instead of immediately providing advice. Everyone wants to be listened to and to feel that the listener wants to understand.
-- Focus on emotions, not weight. It's the feelings that are hurting. The child needs help to deal with thoughts and feelings. Problems with low self-esteem because of weight prejudice don't go away when the excess weight goes away, as Dale learned.
-- Help the child deal with the weight, but don't use criticism and strict diets. Punitive measures only add to the problem. Instead, learn to provide nutritious alternatives for the whole family and engage everyone in a more active lifestyle. Your child already feels different at school -- home should be a safe haven. Plus, when the whole family gets in on the act, it's much more likely that the overweight child will succeed with weight loss.
-- Don't be afraid to get guidance about helping your child. Talking to school officials and a skilled counselor who specializes in children and teens can make a complicated problem much easier to deal with. When children are having emotional problems, it's usually more effective for the adults to seek help for themselves to learn what they can do rather than just taking the child to a therapist.
School can be a place where we experience some of the best times in our lives -- and the worst.
Let's be aware of signs that our children need help getting over the bumps in the road, and emerge from the trip with their feelings of worth intact.