TUESDAY, June 6, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Your parenting style affects your child's weight and whether she will be overweight by first grade, a new study found.
"Children of authoritarian parents had five times the risk of being overweight compared to children of authoritative [a more diplomatic style] mothers," said Dr. Kyung Rhee, a clinical instructor and research fellow at Boston University School of Medicine and the study's lead author.
Authoritarian parents are described as strict disciplinarians, Rhee said, while authoritative parents are more respectful of a child's opinions and thoughts while maintaining boundaries. Two other parenting styles were evaluated by the researchers: Permissive, in which parents are indulgent and don't practice discipline, and neglectful, in which parents are emotionally uninvolved and don't set rules.
The findings appear in the June issue of the journal Pediatrics.
Rhee and her colleagues evaluated data from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, analyzing 872 children. About 11 percent were overweight, defined as a body mass index greater than or equal to the 95th percentile for their age and gender. That typically translates to a lot of excess weight, Rhee said.
Authoritarian parenting was associated with the highest risk of overweight, the researchers found, with the risk five times higher. Children of permissive and neglectful mothers were twice as likely to be overweight as children of authoritative mothers, they also found.
"We were sort of suspecting this would be the case," Rhee said, "because authoritative parenting has been associated with better outcomes in academic achievement, better self-control, less depressive symptoms, less risk-taking as teens."
Why are the less-ideal parenting styles associated with the risk of overweight? "We haven't studied exactly the mechanism," Rhee said. She speculated, however, that parents with an authoritative style allow the child to develop "some of their own self-regulatory abilities." As an example, she said an authoritarian parent might tell his child that he needs to finish a vegetable every night, put it on his plate and say, "Eat it." But an authoritative parent might offer a couple of different vegetables and allow the child to choose.
"The authoritarian parents determine everything for the child," Rhee said. "[The children] may learn not to listen to their bodies about how full they are. They learn to listen to external cues, somebody else telling them, 'You need to finish your plate before you get up from the table.' Authoritative parents allow the child to push the boundaries a little while maintaining the boundaries."
In another study, Dr. Jack Yanovski, head of the unit on growth and obesity for the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, found overweight children had a greater number of fractures and musculoskeletal discomfort. His team reviewed medical charts from 227 overweight and 128 non-overweight children and teens enrolled in clinical studies at the National Institutes of Health from 1996 to 2004.
Knee pain, the most common complaint about joints, was reported by more than 21 percent of overweight children, compared to 16.7 percent of normal-weight kids. The heavier children also had more mobility problems. "I think this has been suspected but hasn't been quantified statistically," Yanovski said. "Fracture and musculoskeletal pain were both four times greater" in overweight children, he added.
The two study findings don't surprise another expert, Rick Stein, research assistant professor in medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. "Authoritative parenting has been associated with many other positive outcomes, including better glycemic control in diabetic children," he said. "And we know anecdotally that kids who are overweight are more prone to orthopedic problems."
His advice for parents? "Try to maintain control but in a positive way," Stein suggested. Be sure to praise the positive, he added, believing in the old saying, "Catch them being good."
To learn more about childhood overweight, visit the American Academy of Pediatrics.