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Study: This Parenting Technique May Help Decrease Childhood Obesity

“Some risk factors, like household poverty, can be very difficult to change. Assets, on the other hand, may be easier to build. People can learn to parent responsively. It is encouraging that parenting really matters, that family matters.”
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By Nehal Aggarwal, Editor
Published February 28, 2022
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Different parenting techniques have been said to influence different factors of childhood development, including emotional and social skills. However, according to a new study from Penn State University, parenting techniques may also play a role in a child’s health outcomes.

The study, published in Pediatrics, analyzed data from over 1,000 mother-child pairs. It specifically looked at how emotionally positive early interactions with cargeivers affected a child’s risk of obesity. The study found that children who had stimulating home environments and warm, responsive interactions were at a decreased risk. These positive interactions even protected children who were at risk due to other factors, such as poverty, maternal depression or hardships in single-parent homes.

“A lot of the discussion around childhood obesity and other health risks focuses on identifying and studying the exposure to risk. We took a strength-based approach in our analysis. We found that a supportive family and environment early in a child’s life may outweigh some of the cumulative risk factors that children can face,” Brandi Rollins, assistant research professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State, said in a release. “It’s encouraging that parenting really matters, that family matters. Research on parenting has shown that these types of family assets influence children’s behavior, academic success, career, and—not surprisingly—health. 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.”

Childhood obesity is characterized as a child who has a body mass index (BMI) higher than 95 percent of the other kids their age and gender. However, the researchers acquiese there is a lot of variance in this. Severe obesity is diagnosed when a child has a BMI that’s 20 percent higher than their age and gender group. The study found that children who suffered from severe obesity had less familial assets, including experience with responsive parenting.

Responsive parenting is a technique that involves responding to kids in a timely, sensitive and age appropriate manner based. It’s based on meeting their needs in the moment. While researchers believe this will help childhood development, they say healthcare professionals and experts need to help parents understand how they can implement this technique into their parenting. “Public health professionals, clinicians, and researchers must collaborate to help families develop psychosocial assets, including responsive parenting and a structured home environment,” Rollins said. “This could improve childhood obesity rates and other important quality-of-life outcomes.”

Of course, the study says more research is needed to fully understand the factors that contribute to increased or decreased risks of obesity. “Though the findings on severe obesity may seem discouraging, they offer some hope,” Rollins said. “Some risk factors, like household poverty, can be very difficult to change. Assets, on the other hand, may be easier to build. People can learn to parent responsively. It is encouraging that parenting really matters, that family matters.”

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