Strict Parenting Can Lead to Overweight Children

New study shows authoritarian parents are five times more likely than authoritative parents to have overweight children.

June 7, 2006 -- Parents who are strict disciplinarians are more likely to have children who are overweight than parents who are sensitive and respectful of a child's opinion, according to a new study sampling first-graders.

The study, which appeared in the June issue of Pediatrics, analyzed four parenting styles -- authoritarian (strict), authoritative (sensitive to child's needs), permissive, and neglectful -- and included a sample of 872 first-graders with a timeframe of 4 1/2 to 7 years.

The study showed that authoritarian parents are about five times more likely to have overweight children, according to Kyung E. Rhee, MD, of Boston University School of Medicine and one of the authors of the study. Overweight was defined as a body mass index (BMI) more than or equal to the 95th percentile.

The researchers suggest two main reasons for the correlation between authoritarian parenting and overweight children: 1. Strict parenting without flexibility results in children creating negative associations with food, so they learn not to like certain healthy foods, such as vegetables, and 2. When authoritarian parents demand how much the child should eat and follow it up with consequences ("you must clear your meal or you can't play") children begin to listen to the parents' demands and not their internal hunger cues. Once this becomes a habit, it's harder to train someone to start listening to their internal cues again, possibly resulting in overeating and weight issues.

Rhee said the results of the study were close to expectations and in line with previous studies that associated authoritative (sensitive to child's needs) parenting with higher academic success and lower chance of risky behavior and depression.

Childhood obesity affects more than 9 million children and teens in the United States, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). To raise awareness of this staggering epidemic, the organization has published a new book, A Parent's Guide to Childhood Obesity: A Road Map to Health, which places importance on parents to alleviate this problem. The book offers advice from prenatal care to adolescence, and suggests that parents must not just tell their children how to eat and stay active, but must show them by participating themselves.

It also includes information on:

  • Preparing balanced and nourishing meals;
  • Increasing physical activity for the whole family; and
  • Dealing with potential setbacks (sneaking food, holiday overeating, snacking).

Rhee's study, "Parenting Styles and Overweight Status in First Grade," did not address cultural differences (82.8 percent in the sample were white) and the authors suggest the findings may or may not hold true for children of different backgrounds.

Rhee hopes the result of her study will cause parents to be aware of their parenting style and the impact it's having on their children.

"It's really hard to change parenting styles. We often do whatever our parents did," she said. "Even though you have clear expectations, you should still be flexible so your children can express themselves and display some self-control over their actions, still within your parameters."

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