Parenting Styles and Obesity Risk in Adolescents

One of the most common assertions is that home environments including parenting styles are a major determinant of obesity risk in kids.

This issue was now examined by Jerica Berge and colleagues from the University of Minnesota in a paper published in the latest issue of OBESITY.

As described in the paper, the four classic parenting styles (known to be a characteric of the parent and to generally be stable over time) are:

Authoritative: high level of demandingness (on the child) with high level of responsiveness (to the child)

Authoritarian: high level of demandingness with low level of responsiveness

Permissive: low level of demandingness with high level of responsiveness

Neglectful: low level of demandingness with low low level of responsiveness

Furthermore, parenting practices can be divided into direct (e.g. encouraging) and indirect (e.g. modeling) patterns.

Data from Project EAT, a population-based study with over 2,500 adolescents from 31 Minnesota school with diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, were used.

Maternal authoritative parenting style predicted lower BMI in adolescent sons and daughters, whereas maternal authoritarian style predicted higher BMI in sons (especially when combined with neglectful dads) but had no effect on daughters’ BMI.

In contrast fathers’ parenting styles alone, appeared to have no effect on sons or daughters’ BMI.

Sons of parents who encouraged but did not model healthy lifestyles had a higher BMI, but the effect of encouraging vs. modeling on daughters’ BMI was less clear.

Oddly, paternal permissive parenting style predicted more fruits and vegetables intake in daughters

Most surprisingly, no significant associations were found between parenting style and adolescent physical activity levels.

While there were no interactions between ethnicity and parenting styles, lower SES parents tended to be more authoritarian, while higher SES parents tended to be more authoritative.

The authors interpret their findings to suggest that authoritative parenting style may play a protective role related to adolescent overweight and that warmth and/or caring in the parent-adolescent relationship may be important in relation to female adolescent healthy dietary intake.

The biggest surprise however was the apparent importance of opposite sex parents’ influence on their offspring.

Based on their findings, the authors had two clinical tips:

1) Clinicians should perhaps promote authoritative parenting styles as high parental expectations and structure along with caring and emotional responsiveness, rather than rigidness, less structure and emotional unresponsiveness, may protect against overweight in sons.

2) Clinicians should promote congruency between parenting practices (in both words and actions), as this may be protective in both sons and daughters.

However, given the fact that parenting styles and behaviours have previously been shown to be stable over time, it may be doubtful as to how much influence clinicians can truly have on parenting.

Furthermore, although clearly an authoritarian parenting style appears worst, I am rather surprised that the influence of different parenting styles was not far greater or clearer than what was found in this study.

This may either be a reflection of how little influence parents actually have on adolescent behaviours and/or how little parenting actually has to do with kids’ risk for overweight or obesity in the first place.

Edmonton, Alberta

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Berge JM, Wall M, Bauer KW, & Neumark-Sztainer D (2010). Parenting characteristics in the home environment and adolescent overweight: a latent class analysis. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.), 18 (4), 818-25 PMID: 19816417