Opinion & Debate

Published on February 3rd, 2014 | by Kelly Rose Bradford


Your emotional relationship with your child could be making them obese

Could your relationship with your child increase their chances of obesity? Yes, according to a new study from the University of Illinois.

Researchers found an association between a parent’s ‘insecure attachment’ and their child’s consumption of unhealthy food.

Kelly Bost, professor of human development and family studies, said that mums and dads who were regularly punished or had their emotions ignored by their parents, may well be ‘insecurely attached’ to their own children and parent them badly.

She said that a child who doesn’t learn to ‘regulate his emotions’ (through being brushed aside or ignored by his parents) could develop eating patterns that put him at risk for obesity.

She added that children formed ‘secure attachments’ to their parents when they were ‘available’ and ‘responsive’ and that such attachment then gave the child a secure base from which to explore and develop.

Argh! THAT was the para that made us really sit up and take notice.  As single parents, it is sometimes impossible to always be ‘available’, and ‘responsive’ can often pretty much go out of the window too, (unless ‘Uh-huh’, ‘Yes, I am listening’ and ‘Mmmm’ count).

Obviously the study wasn’t about single parents per se, but interpreting the findings when you ARE one can make for one heck of a scary piece of research.

Professor Bost said the team wanted to discover ‘the steps that connect attachment and obesity’ adding that they already knew that a person’s attachment style is consistently related to the way he responds to negative emotions.

“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.

The team found that when children did not have a secure base, an insecure attachment could result, which could lead to anxiety and uncertainty in close relationships.  Ms Bost said that in turn could then leave youngsters at risk of parenting ineffectively when they became adults.

The study involved 497 primary caregivers of 2½- to 3½-year-olds completing a questionnaire to determine adult attachment, and answering 32 questions about the nature of their close relationships. The parents also rated themselves on a scale that measured depression and anxiety.

They 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. 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,” Ms Bost said.

The researchers discovered that the 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 then led to kids eating unhealthily.

“One explanation might be that insecure mums 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,” Ms Bost said.

The professor added that telling a child to “clean your plate” or “eat just three more bites and you can have dessert” also sent 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,” Ms Bost concluded, adding that it was ‘also useful to give busy working parents practical plans for establishing a routine for mealtime planning’.

We’re all doomed…



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About the Author

Kelly Rose Bradford

is a London-based journalist and broadcaster, writing for the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, the Sunday Telegraph, and a host of women's magazines. Her robust opinions and feisty debating skills make her in demand as a social commentator, regularly guesting on ITV's This Morning programme, and across many radio stations, including 5 Live and BBC Radio London.

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