Insecure caregivers may contribute to obesity in children

By Claire Hettinger

A new University study found that caregivers with an insecure attachment to their own parents may have parenting styles that contribute to obesity in the children they care for.

The study suggests that insecure caregivers of two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half year-olds are more likely to instill emotional eating habits and use television to avoid stressful parenting situations, which may result in heavier children than those of more secure counterparts.

Kelly Bost is an associate professor of child development and author of the study, “Associations Between Adult Attachment Style, Emotion Regulation, and Preschool Children’s Food Consumption.” She said the research looked at family mealtime patterns and the socialization of eating behaviors. 

Bost said the STRONG KIDS Team, an interdisciplinary group that takes a cells-to-society approach to studying childhood obesity and nutrition, focused on preschoolers because other studies focus on adolescents, but not many look at whether obesity patterns begin at this young age. 

Since young children learn to eat first from their caregivers, Bost said she wanted to look at the interpersonal context in which people eat and develop behaviors in the home.

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Barbara Fiese, professor and director of the Family Resiliency Center and a member of the STRONG KIDS Team, said in an email that they found when parents experience insecure attachment to their own parents, they have more difficulty responding to strong emotions and organizing meal routines which, in turn, compromises their child’s nutrition. 

“My area of expertise is in mealtime routines where we have found that families who regularly share meals together and communicate positively during meals have children with better health,” she said.

In this study, the researchers wanted to examine how the parent’s attachment style may be associated with how they respond to emotions and create mealtime routines, she said.

As part of the research, the primary caregiver was asked to complete a survey to assess their level of insecurity, Bost said. Then, she said, the team videotaped dinner and analyzed how caregivers handled stressors that arose during the meal. Next, they compared the survey results to the recordings to assess how insecurity affected meal times.

If a problem arose, Bost said more secure caregivers would comfort their children and assure them the problem could be handled and remained calm throughout the situation, whereas more insecure caregivers would dismiss the child’s feelings and become stressed themselves. These caregivers are also more likely to give their children unhealthy food in order to calm them down during a stressful situation. There is a good bit of evidence that shows when someone is upset then, they tend to eat more salty snacks and sweets, Bost said.

The study also looked at the amount of TV children watched and found insecure caregivers were more likely to have their children watch TV while they coped with the stress that arose during mealtime.

According to the study, more anxious caregivers were more likely to use negative emotion regulation strategies, like giving children food when they know they’re not hungry, and reported that their children watched more television and ate more unhealthful foods than less anxious caregivers.

Additionally, the study explained that one quarter of 2-to-5-year olds in the United States are overweight or obese and weight increases between 2 and 5 years can predict adult overweight status.

Margarita De L Teran-Garcia, assistant professor of nutritional sciences, said obesity has many long term consequences for the health of a child such as hypertension and diabetes. Unfortunately, she said, the chances of overweight or obese children remaining so as an adult are very high. 

“It is not difficult for a child to become obese because unfortunately we do not have a good perception of what is a normal weight for a child,” she said.

Teran-Garcia said people are worried about their kids being underweight while they should be more concerned about their kids being overweight.

When parents reward their children through food, this behavior becomes a habit and the children learn that when they are emotionally excited, they are rewarded with food, she said. If these behaviors are not corrected and the child does not have a positive role model to look at, then they will not change, she said.

If a child is not taught positive eating habits in the first five years of life, then the bad behaviors will likely follow them through their entire lives, she said.

Bost said the study was not meant to blame caregivers but to look at their relationships with their charges and gain information about what contributes to eating behaviors.

“I am hoping that people look at the findings and try to think about how we deal with obesity in different ways for children and their families and help them,” she said.

Claire can be reached at [email protected].