Parent’s harsh tactics raise child’s obesity risk

"Harshness leads to problems with physical health, and no matter how hard a spouse tries they may not be able to erase those effects," says Thomas Schofield. (Credit: iStockphoto)

Harsh parenting may increase a child’s risk for poor physical health and obesity as they get older. And attempts by one parent to counterbalance the harsh behavior are not always effective in lessening the risk.

The findings lead to more questions than answers, the researchers say. The link from harsh parenting to physical health may be buffered by a warm and nurturing coparent. However, when the effect on body mass index was measured, the health risk of harsh parenting went up as warmth from the other parent increased.

“Harshness leads to problems with physical health, and no matter how hard a spouse tries they may not be able to erase those effects,” says Thomas Schofield, assistant professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State University.

“Instead of saying, ‘I’m the law and my wife is the gospel’ or something like that, better to acknowledge that in terms of harshness, your spouse is not going to be a buffer for the child, so behave responsibly.”

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The study is one of the first to use data from observed parent-child interactions and look at changes in the child’s health over several years from adolescence to young adulthood.

Researchers videotaped the interactions of 451 two-parent families to assess parenting behavior. Harsh parenting was defined as parents who reject, coerce, are physically aggressive, and are self-centered. No parent in this sample was observed hitting their adolescent, but there were other signs of physical aggression, such as pinching and pushing.

As reported in the study, published in the journal Social Science and Medicine, harsh parenting can expose children to a chronic stressful environment for as long as two decades. Further the exposure can have a lasting effect on the developing brain during childhood and early adolescence. Other research shows there are negative biological responses—chronic release of hormones, inflammation, and lower cardiovascular reactivity—that can result from chronic stress.

“If we want to make sure we’re protecting children’s health and positive physical health into young adulthood, the best and safest conclusion is to avoid being harsh,” Schofield says.

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For participants in the study, the differences in physical health and BMI were not evident at the beginning of adolescence, which suggests that the negative health effects were not preexisting—but persisted into young adulthood, even after many had moved out of their parents’ homes.

Researchers controlled for several factors including family per-capita income-to-needs ratio, adolescent gender, parent education and family size. Factors such as smoking, overeating, parent income, and family structure did not influence the results.

Many parents may not recognize or think their behavior is overly harsh, but are simply treating their children the way their parents treated them, Schofield says.

“We’re fighting against that emotional connection to our own caregiver, who parented us that way. If we accept that the behavior is damaging, we have to accept that our parent who loved us did something that may have been bad for us. It’s not a complicated idea, but there’s just too much emotion in the way.”

Source: Iowa State University