New research from Penn State found that children with positive, early interactions with their caregivers — characterized by warmth, responsiveness and a nurturing home environment — had a reduced risk of childhood obesity.
“Much of the discussion about childhood obesity and other health risks focuses on identifying and studying exposure to risk,” said Brandi Rollins, assistant professor of biobehavioral health research. . “We took a strengths-based approach in our analysis. We found that a supportive family and environment early in a child’s life can outweigh some of the cumulative risk factors that children may be at risk for. confronted.”
The study, “Family Psychosocial Assets, Child Behavioral Regulation, and Obesity,” recently appeared in the journal Pediatrics. In the article, Rollins and Lori Francis, associate professor of biobehavioral health, analyzed data from more than 1,000 mother-child pairs and found that children’s early exposures to family psychosocial assets, including a home environment of quality, emotional warmth of the mother and a child’s ability to self-regulate – reduced the risk of developing childhood obesity.
Encouragingly, these factors were protective even when the children faced family risks for obesity, including poverty, maternal depression, or living in a single-parent home.
“Parenting research has shown that these types of family assets influence children’s behavior, academic achievement, careers and — unsurprisingly — health,” Rollins said. “It is significant that these factors also protect against childhood obesity, because the family assets we studied are not food or diet specific at all. It is comforting to know that by providing a loving environment and sure, we can reduce the risk that children will develop obesity.”
Children are considered obese when their body mass index (BMI) is greater than 95% of other children their age and gender. There is, however, a great deal of variance in the BMI of children who exceed the obesity threshold. Children whose BMI is 20% above the obesity threshold are considered to have severe obesity.
The researchers found that children who suffered from early severe obesity did not face higher levels of family risk than children who were not obese. Severely obese children, however, had fewer family assets than children who were not obese or had moderate levels of obesity. Further research is needed to understand which factors contribute to the development of severe obesity and which factors reduce the risk.
“While the results on severe obesity may seem disheartening, they offer some hope,” Rollins explained. “Some risk factors, like household poverty, can be very difficult to change. Assets, on the other hand, can be easier to build. People can learn to parent in a reactive way. It’s encouraging that parenting matters really, family matters.”
What parents can do
This work is based on research in parenting and child development. Responsive parenting, one of the family assets measured in the study, involves responding to children in a timely, sensitive, and age-appropriate manner based on the child’s presented needs. Researchers from the Center for Childhood Obesity Research in Pennsylvania are also studying how responsive parenting can reduce the risk of childhood obesity.
This study focused on childhood obesity, but the researchers said parents can improve many outcomes for their children by learning responsive parenting skills. However, knowledge of reactive parenting skills may not lead directly to implementing these skills at home.
“Nobody can read a brochure about cars and suddenly expect to be driving,” Rollins said. “Driving is a skill that takes education and practice. The same goes for responsive parents.
“Public health professionals, clinicians and researchers must collaborate to help families develop psychosocial assets, including responsive parenting and a structured home environment,” she continued. “It could improve childhood obesity rates and other important quality of life outcomes.”