Bully Wrangling

Carly, 18, is a teen coach in the current multi-center randomized control trial with the W8Loss2Go app. This thoughtful, well-spoken young woman was seriously bullied in 7th grade. She was mocked, called names, and threatened, and also physically accosted — shoved around in the school hallways.

It was not only her size that bothered them, but her intelligence and wit. Childhood Obesity News has related true stories of times when those characteristics worked in an overweight kid’s favor, and alleviated some of the worst consequences. But not this crowd. They were ruthless, and with such unrelenting disapproval, Carly started to get a distorted picture of her own identity.

The trauma carried over into non-school hours, and she describes getting caught up in self-isolating and brooding behavior. For a young, dependent child in her parents’ home, the options can be limited. One can only do so much bedroom sulking, before the lure of the pantry exerts its irresistible power.

In a short (3:29) but affecting video clip, Carly describes an all-too-familiar pattern of displacement activity:

I needed to deal with my bullies, or I needed to run from them. What my brain did was, it took all the overflow energy from that situation and pushed it into the eating drive. So I was overeating because my brain just didn’t know what to do with all that energy.

It was also, as she recognized at the time, a classic example of the vicious cycle. Being overweight led to being bullied, and that led to eating as a “cure” for the bad feeling, and more weight, and more bullying. Fortunately, she had adults to turn to, who helped her figure it out, as described in an audio clip:

My mom told me, usually the reason kids bully is because they have something harder going on at home than they’re talking about, so they bully to get their frustrations out, so she had me write down a list of reasons why these kids might be taking their anger out on me… It just stopped affecting me after I made that list.

This fits in with our previous post, where we saw that neither obese adolescents nor bullies exist in just one variety. Sometimes, fat kids bully other fat kids — even though they, of all people, should know better!

In a case like this, it’s easy for the dispassionate observer to identify the mechanism. Somebody is giving that child a hard time. Somebody sets a bad example, and the child follows that example by turning around and giving another kid a hard time. Passing on the bullying may even be one of those displacement activities we hear so much about.

In a case where the bully is not obese, the root cause is not so obvious, but that child is probably also a victim. Just as Carly’s mom suggested, something may be going on at home that causes pain so unbearable, the only way the kid can find to cope with it is by heaping it on someone else.

Your walk to school may take you past several houses. You walk past House #1 and the dog reclining on the porch opens one eye for a second, and goes back to its nap. Dog #2 is happily chewing on a leather toy and ignores you completely. Dog #3 leans up on its fence and drops a ball on the sidewalk, hoping you will throw it the length of his yard for him to chase.

But at House #4, the dog growls menacingly and barks until you are well past what it considers its territory. By now, it should be clear, you are not the problem. Something is up with that animal. Maybe it hasn’t been fed in three days. Maybe its owner is a psychopath who hits it with a belt. But whatever is going on has nothing against you personally. It’s just acting out, trying to relieve its own pain, and you just happen to be there.

The realization that “It’s not me, it’s them” can go a long way toward relieving the stress. Sometimes that awareness can cause a subtle shift in the psychological dynamic, and the human who barks at you no longer derives as much satisfaction from it. They may just go bark at somebody else, but at least it isn’t your problem any more.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: Weigh2Rock.com via Dropbox
Source: Weigh2Rock.com
Image by Lorie Schaull/(CC BY-SA 2.0)

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Profiles: Kids Struggling with Weight

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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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