Eating Your Feelings? Your Mom Might Be to Blame

4 minute read

The U.S. is in the midst of a baby obesity epidemic. A quarter of our 2 to 5-year-olds are now overweight, according to a study published in JAMA in 2012, and a child’s obesity at age 5 is a strong predictor that they will be obese as adults. Increasingly, experts are expanding their efforts beyond eat-your-veggies programs to target family relationships that may contribute to unhealthy eating. A new study just out suggests that a mom’s relationship with her own mother may be a key factor in whether the youngest generation becomes obese.

The study by University of Illinois researchers, published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, found that women (or primary caregivers) with an insecure attachment to their mothers are likelier to have kids with unhealthy eating habits and who are overweight or obese.

The researchers gave in-depth questionnaires to nearly 500 primary caregivers of 2½ to 3½-year-olds, probing their close adult relationships (that is, their attachment style), how they handled their children’s negative emotions, how and when they fed their kids, the frequency and quality of family meals, and their children’s TV viewing habits.

When parents are unresponsive or inconsistent to our needs as small children, we grow up with what psychologists call an “insecure attachment style” and have more trouble dealing with the distress of our own children, explains lead author Kelly Bost, a professor of human development and family studies at the University of Illinois. Such a parent might respond to a 3-year-old sobbing that little Sophie hurt her feelings with a dismissal or denial: “You don’t need to cry about it,” or “You’re not sad.”

When parents punish or dismiss their children’s sadness or anger, says Bost, the kids don’t learn how to handle or “regulate” their own difficult feelings. “These responses,” says Bost, “are related to emotional feeding practices like giving children food when they’re upset but not hungry, or pressuring them to eat and clean their plates.”

The study also showed that dismissing a child’s sad or angry feelings was linked to fewer family mealtimes and more TV viewing, as well as to more comfort feeding. Bost suggests that insecure mothers may become more easily overwhelmed and plant their kids in front of the TV when they can’t cope.

Other scholars caution that this study shows only an association between insecure attachment and children’s obesity, rather than proving that it’s a cause. But, says Joseph Skelton, a professor of pediatrics at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, in highlighting the importance of family relationships, this research surveys the right territory. “We see this quite often in our obesity program, Brenner FIT, [a pediatric weight-management program at Brenner Children’s Hospital], Skelton says. It isn’t just about what food is being served or how much TV is being allowed, but the quality of parent-child interaction really influences the child, both short and long-term.”

Another caution with this type of research “is not to let it devolve into mother blaming,” says Miriam Liss, a psychology professor at the University of Mary Washington.

Blaming moms is not at all the point, says Bost. The aim is to help moms to parent better in order to reduce their children’s unhealthy eating. For example, she says, “We can give parents practical tips on how to respond to their kids’ distress based on age, and how to manage their own distress while dealing with their kids.” Parents can also be helped with planning for family meals, she says, including teaching them what to expect from their kids at different ages. For example, she says, “When kids are 2½, don’t expect them to sit at the table for more than 15 minutes.”

Whether a mother’s insecurity causes her child to become fat or is linked to unhealthy weight in other ways, improving the parent-child relationship has got to be a step in the right direction.

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