Talk About Eating
Communication between parents and their children
By Dr. Kimmy Cheng
Effective communication between parents and their children can positively shape a child’s life course. Recognizing this, interest has increased in parent-child communication as a way to protect children against health-risk behaviors (Luk, Farhat, Iannotti, & Simons-Morton, 2010; Nonnemaker, Silber-Ashley, Farrelly, & Dench, 2012; Wallenius, Rimpela, Punamaki, & Lintonen, 2009). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2012), health-risk behavior includes: (a) activities that contribute to unintentional and intentional injuries and violence; (b) tobacco use; (c) alcohol and other drug use; (d) sexual behavior; (e) dietary practices; and (f) physical inactivity. Previous research has shown that effective parent-child communication processes are a key mechanism to help prevent children from engaging in health-risk behaviors (Riesch, Anderson, & Krueger, 2006).
Among the health-risk behaviors noted, obesity in children and adolescents is a particularly serious issue because of the health and social consequences it triggers. Multiple factors influence children’s unhealthy eating habits that generally lead to obesity. Among these factors, genetics (Young, 2003); individual (Davidson & Birch, 2001) factors; (c) sociocultural (Ayadi & Young, 2006) background; and (d) social (Benton, 2004; Campbell & Crawford, 2001; Ayadi & Young, 2006) factors contribute to the prevalence of this issue.
Previous research has shown that obesity can be transmitted genetically through generations, with the risk of children becoming obese increasing when one or both parents are obese (Cutting, Fisher, Grimm-Thomas, & Birch, 1999). Yet, there are opportunities to reduce weight and obesity with adequate amounts of physical activity and a healthy diet (Ayadi & Young, 2006). Individual factors relate to one’s affective dimensions that lead children to eat excessively, such as depression, stress, excessive anxiety, and lack of familiar attention (Ayadi & Young, 2006). Sociocultural factors include one’s everyday lifestyle. In our digital age, children’s lifestyles have drifted toward a pattern of inactivity. More and more children lack physical activity, while they indulge themselves in the technological and digital social environment. Such technologies (e.g., smartphones, portable game consoles) indirectly promote ‘passive’ leisure that leads children to become sedentary (Yu, 2011). Children’s unhealthy eating habits are to blame as well. Heavily consuming fatty, sweet, and salty foods has long been identified as the most critical factor that encourages obesity. As such, the risk of becoming obese increases drastically when children lead a sedentary lifestyle and engage in unhealthy eating habits. Social factors encompass parents’ and peers’ eating preferences, beliefs, and habits. Children gain their food experience from their direct environment, and they imitate their parents’ and peers’ food habits (Benton, 2004; Campbell & Crawford, 2001; Ayadi & Young, 2006).
Sadly, obese persons are perceived as deviants in our society. People view the obese as lazy, lacking self-discipline, and less intelligent (Hebl & Heatherton, 1998; Puhl & Brownell, 2004). These stereotypes lead to prejudice and discrimination, which can be found everywhere in our society, including employment and the mass media (Lindelof, Nielsen, & Pedersen, 2011; Puhl & Heuer, 2009; Puhl & Latner, 2007). Worse yet, some obese adolescents have reported they are frequently mocked or teased by their family members, which hinders these children from reducing their weight. Hence, obese individuals feel shameful and embarrassed. Such feelings might contribute to a higher chance of developing depression, low body satisfaction, low self-esteem, and reduced quality of life (Schwimmer, Burwinkle, & James, 2003; Sjoberg, Nilsson, & Leppert, 2005; Wardle & Cooke, 2005). Furthermore, obese individuals adopt behavioral weight avoidance strategies to prevent attention from public stereotypes. This deeply rooted defense mechanism is meant to protect them from dealing with issues that are too difficult to handle (Miller & Kaiser, 2001).
To prevent childhood obesity, research shows that parents can significantly influence children’s eating habits and thus affect children’s weight management (Benton, 2004).Efforts such as offering children low-energy-dense foods and encouraging them to have an active lifestyle (Yu & King, 2009) are effective tactics. To accomplish this, Benton (2004) suggested three parental communication approaches to influence children’s weight management. First, parents should offer rewards to encourage their children to take weight management seriously. For example, parents should first explain what they want their children to eat and the lifestyle they want them to adopt (i.e., active rather than sedentary). Rewards should be given if their children show commitment and improvements in these areas. Second, parents might facilitate emotional communication during mealtimes. Studies have shown that a negative, non-emotional atmosphere during meals causes children to consume less nutritious food and look for food elsewhere, which contributes to obesity (Koivisto, Fellenius, & Sjoden, 1994). Thus, providing a supportive, caring, and emotionally positive atmosphere for children during mealtimes not only avoids their propensity to consume unhealthy foods, but also encourages them to eat more healthily. Last, parents should avoid using rules-based communication with their children. Once children consider the parental rules as unreasonable, they will seek chances (e.g., beyond parental supervision) to fulfill their needs for pleasurable food and rebel against their parents’ rules. Therefore, facilitating effective parent-child communication can contribute significantly to managing children’s eating habits.
The main objective of this article is to emphasize how parent-child communication can be used to prevent obesity among children. As childhood obesity is getting more serious year by year, adequate preventive action must be taken to diminish and control this pressing and dangerous epidemic. Because parental involvement in reducing childhood obesity is significant, this article might shed light on the important task of parents talking with children about being overweight and obese in ways that are practical and caring.