Children, Grownups, Stress, and Obesity (Part 1)


An annual “Stress in America” survey has been going on for some years now. It is far from comprehensive. In 2009, for instance, the replies of 1,568 adults were taken into account, and of 1,206 young people between the ages of 8 and 17. The respondents were a self-selected group of volunteers with Internet access.

Nearly half the tweens and teens reported bodily manifestations of stress, such as headaches, sleep problems, indigestion, and eating too much or not enough. One noteworthy theme in the report was the obliviousness of parents to the unhappiness experienced by their children. For instance, 27% of the tweens and 39% of the teens admitted their eating behavior was sometimes disordered. Yet only 8% of the parents were aware of their children’s compulsive overeating, or other food-related symptoms of stress.

Of course adults have their own problems, and nearly half of them copped to overeating or resorting to unhealthy foods to relieve stress. Adults are very conscious of their own causes of worry and alarm and those of their peers — economic crisis, health, climate change, war. But parents don’t seem to know that their kids are worried. In particular, children and teenagers are far more likely to be aware of the family’s difficult financial situation than parents wish to believe.

After analyzing the results of the 2010 survey covering pretty much the same ground, the American Psychological Association published this theory:

Perhaps most notable are what the survey results suggest about the connection between overweight children and stress… Children who are overweight are more likely to report they worry a lot or a great deal about things in their lives than children who are normal weight… Overweight children are also significantly more likely than normal-weight children to report they worry about the way they look/their weight.

So it’s not just the impending homelessness or global war that young people worry about — they also worry about looking and being fat. While this is not exactly breaking news, it is worth being reminded of, especially the vicious-circle aspect. For those who are inclined that way, the stress of worrying about being overweight has the same effect as any other stress — eat, eat, eat.

And here’s another thing. Though relatively few parents, according to this relatively small study, seemed aware of their offsprings’ distress, kids are very aware of what’s going on in their parents’ psyches. Kids have finely-tuned antennae with which to detect their parents’ states of mind. It is a survival mechanism built into infants, and even in the early days, that awareness can trigger off a vicious circle. A baby with a stressed-out mother might cry every time Mom comes near, which of course creates more maternal stress. Who wants to be rejected by her own baby? Mom can walk the floor with baby, or rock or hum, and the baby continues to cry. Then, to compound the insult, another relative or friend picks up the child, and there is instant baby bliss.

So just consider how much more skilled, after years of experience, a child is at picking up parental signals. The survey indicates that the kids were asked about their perceptions of their parents’ stress levels:

Children who believe they are overweight are significantly more likely than those with a normal weight to report that their parent has been always/often worried or stressed about things in the past month.

The impressions received by these young people may or may not be accurate. Maybe some of them are oversensitive. At any rate, kids who think they are fat get additionally stressed from feeling bad because they think their parents think they’re fat. It might be a good first step for parents to take every opportunity of letting the kids know they loved at all times, no matter what.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “APA survey raises concern about parent perceptions of children’s stress,”, 11/03/09
Source: “Key Findings,”
Image by “Clairity” (Sharon Mollerus)

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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