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The Informed Parent

Parenting Influences on Childhood Obesity

by Peter W. Welty, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on Oct. 09, 2009

The prevalence of childhood obesity has nearly tripled over the past thirty years. Several factors appear to be associated with this predicament. These include parent weight status, parent education and income level, ethnic minority status, and childhood behavioral problems. Although specific parent feeding attitude, such as insisting that a child clean his plate, is associated with a child being overweight in middle class populations, the association between parenting style and childhood obesity is not clear.

Four classic parenting styles have been identified. They are described as authoritative, authoritarian, permissive and neglectful. Authoritative parents tend to have high demands for maturity and self-control from their children. But they also display high levels of sensitivity, warmth and involvement. The authoritative parenting style is often considered the ideal and has been associated with improved child outcomes.

Authoritarian parents have high demands for self-control but low levels of sensitivity. Thus, they provide minimal emotional support and are viewed as strict disciplinarians.

Permissive parenting is characterized by low expectations for self-control and discipline in the setting of high sensitivity and warmth. Children from these families may be more self-confident. But they often show lower levels of self-control with higher rates of drug use and school misconduct.

Neglectful parenting is associated with unfavorable child outcomes such as high rates of depression, smoking and poor school achievement.

The results of a study published in the June 2006 Journal of Pediatrics showed that mothers with authoritarian parenting style were significantly more likely to have children who were overweight in first grade. This study was compared with mothers having an authoritative parenting style. Permissive and neglectful parenting styles also increased childhood overweight risk as compared to the authoritative style.

These results provide evidence that a strict environment lacking in emotional responsiveness is associated with an increased risk of childhood overweight. There is literature showing that parent warmth and sensitivity are associated with parent/child cooperation and increased ability to regulate negative emotions. Similarly, a parent who displays more warmth and consideration of the child's developmental abilities may foster a greater capacity in the child for regulating eating behaviors.

It is likely that eating behaviors in young children are a function of both specific feeding practices and parenting styles. The study concludes that authoritative parents had the lowest prevalence of overweight children. Children of authoritarian parents had the greatest odds of overweight. A better understanding of how these parenting styles affect child behavioral patterns regarding eating and activity levels may help guide the development of more comprehensive approaches to identify and treat overweight children. See your pediatrician for further information.

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