Parent-child relationship could influence obesity

February 4, 2014

A study published in Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics shows that there may be an association between a parent’s insecure attachment and their child’s consumption of unhealthy foods.

Researchers at the University of Illinois documented the association. “We wanted to discover the steps that connect attachment and obesity. Scientists know that a person’s attachment style is consistently related to the way he responds to negative emotions, and we thought that response might be related to three practices that we know are related to obesity: emotion-related feeding styles, including feeding to comfort or soothe; mealtime routine; and television viewing,” said Kelly Bost, a Univ. of Illinois Professor of Human Development and Family Studies.

According to Bost, children form secure attachments when their caregiver is available and responsive. That attachment gives the child a secure base to explore his environment, protection in times of distress or uncertainty, and a source of joy in everyday interactions. When that secure base isn’t there, an insecure attachment can result, and children who are insecurely attached often experience feelings of anxiety and uncertainty in close relationships. As adults, they are especially at risk for ineffective parenting surrounding some of the factors that are implicated in pediatric obesity, she said.

In the study, 497 primary caregivers of children ages 2½–3½ completed a widely used questionnaire to determine adult attachment, answering 32 questions about the nature of their close relationships. They also rated themselves on a scale that measured depression and anxiety.

Parents then responded to questions about how they handled their children’s negative emotions; whether they engaged in emotion-related, pressuring feeding styles known to predict obesity; frequency, planning of, and communication during family mealtimes; and estimated hours of television viewing per day.

The study found that insecure parents were significantly more likely to respond to their children’s distress by becoming distressed themselves or dismissing their child’s emotion. That pattern of punishing or dismissing a child’s sad or angry emotions was significantly related not only to comfort feeding but also to fewer family mealtimes and more TV viewing, which led to children’s unhealthy eating, including self-reported sugary drinks, fast foods, and salty snacks, said Bost.

Abstract