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Insensitive Parenting Linked to Obese Children

Update Date: Jan 30, 2014 07:02 PM EST

Having insensitive mothers can increase children's risk of obesity, according to a new study.

"If your mother regularly punished or dismissed your anger, anxiety, or sadness instead of being sensitive to your distress and giving you strategies for handling those feelings, you may be insecurely attached and parenting your children in the same way. A child who doesn't learn to regulate his emotions may in turn develop eating patterns that put him at risk for obesity," Kelly Bost, a University of Illinois professor of human development and family studies, said in a news release.

"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," she said.

Secure relationships, which form when the caregiver is available and responsive, give the child a secure base to explore his environment, protection in times of distress or uncertainty and a source of happiness in everyday interaction.

Previous studies revealed that children who are insecurely attached often have feelings of anxiety and uncertainty in close relationships.

The latest study revealed that children who are insecurely attached are at risk of pediatric obesity.

The latest study involved 497 primary caregivers of 2-to 3-year old children. The caregivers completed questionnaires to determine adult attachments. They rated themselves on a depression and anxiety scale, and answered questions about how they dealt with their children.

"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. For example, if a child went to a birthday party and was upset because of a friend's comment there, a dismissive parent might tell the child not to be sad, to forget about it. Or the parent might even say: Stop crying and acting like a baby or you're never going over again," Bost said.

The findings revealed that punishing or dismissing a child's sad or angry emotions was significantly correlated with comfort feeding, family mealtimes and more TV viewing, which was linked to children's unhealthy eating of fast foods, salty snacks and sugary drinks

"One explanation might be that insecure moms are more easily overwhelmed with stress, find it more difficult to organize family mealtimes, and allow their children to watch more television as a coping strategy," she said.

The findings also revealed that force-feeding or telling children to "clean your plate" or "eat just three more bites and you can have dessert" sends the wrong message.

"In fighting childhood obesity, one of the most important lessons we can teach children is to eat when they're hungry and recognize when they're full. We want to encourage children to respond to their internal cues and encourage parents not to promote eating under stress or eating to soothe," she added.

The findings are published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics.

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