How To Approach Psychological Drivers and Complications of Childhood Obesity

In a follow up to yesterday’s post on why parents are often reluctant to seek professional help to deal with their kid’s excess weight, I want to draw my readers’ attention to an article by Jillon Vander Wal and Elisha Mitchell from Saint Louis University, MO, just published in Pediatric Clinics of North America.

The paper gives a succinct overview of the many psychological and behavioural problems that can be associated with excess weight (or weight gain) in kids and adolescents: body dissatisfaction, symptoms of depression, loss-of-control eating, unhealthy and extreme weight control behaviors, impaired social relationships, obesity stigma, and decreased health-related quality of life.

The authors note the importance of recognizing and addressing psychosocial issues in overweight kids – they point out that:

“ecological models that take into consideration individual, psychosocial, physical, and macrolevel environments are best suited for understanding the associations between child obesity and psychosocial difficulties”

They discuss how such approaches can be important determinants of successful interventions:

“Consistent with the bioecological theory, these interventions addressed the more immediate family social context, but also the broader peer environment. These findings highlight the importance of addressing these issues before the initiation of weight loss treatment or, at the very least, concurrently. The addition of social facilitation and skills building may prove to be a core improvement to lifestyle intervention programs.”

While noting that:

“The topics of weight and mental health issues must be approached with care and consideration.”

the authors also point out that:

“Physicians must objectively evaluate psychological complications among overweight youth and not assume maladjustment.”

A number of non-threatening and non-judgemental ‘conversation starters’ for assessing mental health concerns are suggested (e.g. Does your child express concerns regarding appearance?, Does your child worry a lot?).

The paper also provides practitioners with a list of standardized and validated assessment tools that can help explore a wide range of important dimensions like emotional functioning, physical functioning, teasing/marginalization, positive social attributes, mealtime challenges, and school functioning (e.g. Sizing Me Up).

As the authors point out:

“More comprehensive screenings for high-risk populations are also available and should be used by appropriately trained professionals, preferably in multidisciplinary treatment settings. These tools are most applicable for high-risk children, such as children with BMIs of 40 or greater or for youth presenting for professional weight loss services.

Ideally, if significant psychosocial concerns are identified, the family can be referred to an experienced psychologist for further consultation and management:

“Pediatricians may consider referral to psychologists who can assess for a broad range of physical and mental health conditions and aid in their treatment, as well as associated psychosocial difficulties.Further, psychologists can intervene from a systems-level approach to promote the individual, family, and social-level change needed to promote and maintain weight loss. A psychologist intervening at a systemic level works not only with the child, but with the child’s family to promote healthy eating practices, engage in opportunities for physical activity, and establish positive peer interactions at home, with external caretakers, in the child’s school, and in the surrounding community. “

As the authors conclude:

Addressing psychological complications associated with pediatric obesity is an important component of treatment success.”

I would certainly like to hear from any of my readers, who have had positive and helpful interactions with health professionals regarding their kids’ excess weight.

Edmonton, Alberta

Vander Wal JS, & Mitchell ER (2011). Psychological complications of pediatric obesity. Pediatric clinics of North America, 58 (6), 1393-401 PMID: 22093858