A study from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health suggests that mom is going to be blamed for something else when the kids get old enough to complain about their upbringing. In the first research project in the world to analyze children’s eating habits in combination with maternal psychological variables, researchers found that emotionally unstable mothers tend to give their kids more sweet and fatty foods, leading to more weight gain.
And this was no small study. Nearly 28,000 mothers were included in the analysis, which focused on psychological factors such as anxiety, sadness, low self-confidence and a generally negative view of the world. In combination, those factors are referred to as “negative affectivity,” and mothers who exhibit it typically have lower stress thresholds and give up quicker when faced with obstacles — when their kids are out of control, they’re more likely to give up and let the cretins have their way.
Strangely, though, researchers found no link between a mother’s personality and healthy eating habits. Evidently, being a more confident and positive mom does not necesssarily equal more fruits and veggies on the kids’ plates.
The painful rub of all this is that earlier studies have found that being a more controlling parent (and that means mom and dad — because, no, dad doesn’t get a pass on this) also leads to more sugar in kids’ diets. Setting aside the negative emotion component from the Norwegian study, what’s an everyday parent to do?
Two words: modeling and flexibility. The Framingham Children’s Study, conducted nearly nine years ago, yielded one of the most interesting results of any study on this topic before or since. Here it is: when parents exhibit “disinhibited eating” (lack of control), but preach “dietary restraint” (strict control) — their kids get fatter.
What at first sounds paradoxical actually makes a lot of sense. Often, people who try the hardest (and talk the most) about controlling calories also have the hardest time actually doing it, and it’s a vicious cycle: increasing strictness eventually leads to losing more control, which leads to becoming even stricter, more loss of control, and on and on. And kids, the sponges that they are, internalize the chaos and put on the pounds.
The remedy: break the cycle with a sensible dose of flexibility, and back it up with a helping of consistent modeling. Lighten up, literally. Easier said than done, no doubt, but it beats the alternatives.