Considering the Experiences of Youth who are Overweight: Fostering Youth Development

by Charlene S.-M.

One need not look far to find statistics or reports of the rising rates of childhood obesity in Canada and generally in North America.  Sadly, in addition to the well documented health consequences, youth who are overweight or obese experience a number of negative social and psychological consequences.  Within the field of recreation and sport, it is important to understand something about the experiences of these youth and to consider ways in which aspects of the programs and services we offer may contribute positively to their development and also be detrimental to their development.

Youth who are overweight are often stigmatized, isolated, and bullied and in a variety of contexts including recreation and sport contexts (Latner & Stunkard, 2003; Shannon, 2012). Some youth who are overweight struggle with low self-esteem (Strauss, 2000). They lack confidence in their abilities to participate in a variety of activities. In some cases, they are not fit so cannot keep up with the other children or are challenged to develop skills at the same rate as their peer group. Youth who are overweight also have weaker friendship ties that healthy weight youth (Strauss & Pollock, 2003)

Unfortunately, when some youth have these experiences it results in them avoiding participation in recreation and sport programs or services. Given the known benefits and opportunities associated with participation in extracurricular activities, the idea that youth who are overweight may not be accessing opportunities to develop, for example, self-esteem or friendship ties is particularly disturbing. This leads me to the question:  What can leaders working in sport and recreation contexts do to support youth who are overweight in having positive, developmental experiences? Here are three suggestions:

  1. Remember that creating environments that are psychologically safe foster youth development. Discuss with participants and parents the expectations related to how youth will speak to and about each other. Consider developing strategies to respond quickly and decisively when incidences of bullying, teasing, and/or excluding do occur. Explain consequences for behaviour that compromises the “psychologically safe” environment (e.g., discuss how the person who is bullied might feel)
  2. Strike a balance between cooperative and competitive games. Conflict can sometimes occur when youth are focused on winning. They may become frustrated with youth who are still learning and improving skills and who may miss opportunities to “score”.  Cooperative games and sports are planned activities involving rules, turn taking, social competence and cooperation during games or sports. Read more about cooperative games and sports here: Peace Sports Virtue.
  3. Ensure that physical activity is included as part of the program and that all youth have the opportunity to develop their abilities in activities that are normally part of the program. Think about ways you can gradually build the fitness levels of all youth (not only those who may be overweight) and help them to see their improvement. Consider pairing a youth who has mastered a skill with a youth who is still learning or working on improving. Have them work together. This may be a way to offer one youth the opportunity to provide leadership and offer encouragement and for another youth to have extra time to practice a skill.

For further reading, check out these academic resources:

Latner, J.D., & Stunkard, A. (2003). Getting worse: The stigmatization of obese children. Obesity Research, 11, 452–456.

Shannon, C.S. (2012). Leisure education within the context of a childhood obesity interventionprogramme: Parents’ experiences. World Leisure Journal, 54(1), 16-25.

Strauss, R. S. (2000). Childhood obesity and self-esteem. Pediatrics, 105, e15.

Strauss, R.S., & Pollack, H.A. (2003). Social marginalization of overweight children. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 157, 746–752.

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One Response to Considering the Experiences of Youth who are Overweight: Fostering Youth Development

  1. This is one of a few examples of possible posts that I will provide. Enjoy!

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