URBANA, Ill. - During the last 30 years, childhood obesity has become an increasingly significant challenge for many families in the U.S. But the issue isn’t a simple one—excessive weight gain is the result of many different factors interacting over time—and it’s important for those working with issues around weight and family health to consider all the variables that are in play with this complex issue.
In a study recently published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, researchers at the University of Illinois have been looking at how emotional responsiveness can affect the feeding practices that parents use and how they relate to parents’ emotions.
What are feeding practices?
Feeding practices are defined as the ways in which children are socialized around food, eating, and mealtimes. Healthy feeding practices include providing a variety of foods, establishing routines around eating, and responding to a child’s cues of hunger or fullness. Unhealthy feeding practices, or non-responsive feeding, include pressuring children to eat and restricting the types or amount of food they have access to. Parents who use these unhealthy feeding practices may be increasing their child’s risk for obesity over time.
The study explores how parents’ emotional responsiveness and their use of certain feeding practices relate to child weight gain. Generally, supportive emotional responsiveness can have a positive effect on a child’s ability to regulate their emotions. Lead researcher Jaclyn Saltzman, a doctoral student in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Illinois says, “A good example of this is when a child is panicky and can’t sleep after watching something scary on TV. If a parent encourages a child to talk about their fear, comforts them, or does something fun with the child to distract them—those are supportive practices.” But if a parent gets angry or feels upset themselves—because their child is upset—Saltzman says that would be considered unsupportive emotion responsiveness. It indicates that there might be something going on with the parent’s ability to regulate his or her negative emotions.
Tied into this are parents’ unhealthy eating behaviors. Binge eating—or eating past the point of fullness and to the point of distress—is related to poor emotion regulation. Binge eating may also negatively affect parents’ emotional responsiveness to the child, because their capacity to regulate their own emotions effectively is compromised. Saltzman’s research shows these unsupportive emotional responsiveness strategies lead to the use of unhealthy feeding practices, and to increased child weight gain over time.
To determine this, Saltzman’s team studied approximately 250 moms and preschool-aged children at two stages: the first when children were 36 months and the second at 51 months old. At the first stage, mothers were asked about their height and weight, if they engaged in binge eating, the frequency of that eating behavior, their emotional responsiveness strategies, and the feeding practices they used. At the second stage, emotional responsiveness strategies and feeding practices were measured again for any changes over time. Additionally, height and weight were measured directly for children, and mothers’ height and weight were self-reported.
Based on the data, Saltzman finds a link between maternal binge eating and the use of more unsupportive emotional responsiveness strategies. “Parents who binge eat are more likely to get upset when their kids are upset, because they’re already at capacity trying to cope with their own negative emotions,” says Saltzman. “It might be harder for them to try to respond by helping the child sift through their emotions and express themselves effectively, because they might be struggling with that skill already.”
Those unsupportive emotional responsiveness strategies then lead to more unhealthy feeding practices, like pressuring a child to clean their plate. Or as Saltzman says, “Parents were then more likely to restrict children’s access to types or amounts of food, and push their kids past the point of fullness. Saying things like ‘One more bite, two more bites, or clean your plate.’ They were also more likely to use food as a reward for desired behavior.” After a prolonged period, these unhealthy feeding practices increased the risk for weight gain among children.
So what does this all mean for parents?
First, Saltzman stresses that parents shouldn’t be blamed. “We don’t want to use these results and say that parents are to blame for increased child weight,” Saltzman points out. “We have to consider how parents’ emotions are being brought to the table, especially for those parents who may be struggling with eating and emotion regulation themselves.” Blaming parents for excessive weight gain in kids would only make it harder for them to regulate their emotions, their eating behavior, and how they feed their children.
One of the main takeaways from the study is that parents are people who need care too, just like their children. As Saltzman says, “We know that people who binge experience a lot of distress because of those binge eating behaviors, and so we think this emotional overload may bleed out into the parent-child relationship.” Obesity prevention programs that focus only on children are leaving parents out of the equation, and may not be supporting them.
Saltzman’s research further suggests that in order for parents to help their children develop healthy habits, parents have to be cared for as well. “To parents,” Saltzman suggests. “I would say that, in order to care for your child, it’s important to care for yourself. It’s really hard to focus on your child during a meal if you’re feeling overwhelmed around food or negative emotion.” Parents who engage in binge eating or overeating might want to consider seeking help from a clinician who practices with attention toward developing healthy emotion regulation strategies.
“In the end,” says Saltzman, “caring for parents’ emotions is going to have a positive effect on children, and working with parents instead of blaming them is clearly where we need to go.”
“Eating, feeding, and feeling: emotional responsiveness mediates longitudinal associations between maternal binge eating, feeding practices, and child weight” is published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, and is available online at http://ijbnpa.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12966-016-0415-5. Co-authors are Jaclyn A. Saltzman, Maria Pineros-Leano, Janet M. Liechty, Kelly K. Bost, Barbara H. Fiese and the STRONG Kids Team.