Stress in America: Overweight Children Are Affected More

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Americans are really stressed out — not least of all American kids, according to a new survey [PDF] from the American Psychological Association. The report found that children who are overweight or obese feel particularly stressed, more so than their normal-weighted peers. And such stress may have a lasting impact on other lifestyle behaviors that negatively affect overweight kids’ health.

The new report, “Stress in America 2010,” found that the majority of Americans continue to live with moderate to high levels of stress, and while they know this isn’t healthy, they say they face obstacles that prevent them from managing or reducing their stress. They also acknowledge that they have trouble adopting other healthy behaviors like eating right, exercising and getting enough sleep. (More on Study: Parent-Only Education Helps Children Lose Weight)

The effects of all of that appears to be trickling down to their families, particularly in households with overweight or obese parents. Obese parents were more likely than normal-weight parents to have overweight kids, and parents with overweight kids were less likely to report often or always eating healthy foods, compared with parents of thin children. What’s more, thin parents said they engaged in physical activity with their families more often than fat parents.

Along with the tendency toward unhealthy lifestyle behaviors, fat parents and fat children shared higher levels of stress. For instance, while 31% of overweight children reported worrying about their lives, only 14% of their healthy weighted counterparts did the same. When researchers asked about specific symptoms of stress and depression, the rates of positive responses in overweight children went up and stayed higher than in normal-weight kids: overweight children were more likely than children of healthy weight to have trouble sleeping at night (48% vs. 33%), feel angry or get into fights (22% vs. 13%), experience headaches (43% vs. 28%) or feel listless and like they didn’t want to do anything (34% vs. 21%). Further, children who believed they were overweight were more likely to report a parent who was “always” or often stressed out in the past month (39% vs. 30%). (More on Do Parents Discriminate Against Their Own Chubby Children?)

Although the majority of parents didn’t their kids were affected by their stress, 91% of all children surveyed said they could tell when a parent was upset about something, and could perceive their emotional distress when they argued, complained or acted worried. Nearly half of “tween” children aged 8 to 12  and one-third of teens aged 13 to 17 reported feeling sad in response to a parent’s distress, while large proportions also felt worried or frustrated. And while 86% of tweens said they felt comfortable talking to their parents about stressful situations, only 50% had done so in the previous month.

Additional survey data suggested that while overweight kids feel more stress, stress can also lead to additional weight gain. Most of the children interviewed said they used sedentary activities to manage their stress: 36% of tweens and 66% of teens listened to music, 56% of tweens and 41% of teens played video games, and 34% of tweens and 30% of teens watched TV. Further, 48% of overweight teens and tweens reported disordered eating (either too much or too little) when stressed out, compared with only 16% of children at a healthy weight. (More on Study: Fast-Food Ads Target Kids with Unhealthy Food, and It Works)

With nearly 1 in 5 children in America being overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, managing stress as part of a total weight-control plan can only help.

For more data on stress in America, see the full report here.

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