Childhood obesity has more than doubled in the past 30 years. Recent studies caution parents against commenting on their children’s weight, arguing that a parent’s comments can have negative consequences for years afterward. But perhaps it’s more than just words: A new study suggests even a parent’s perception of a child as overweight can lead to greater weight gain.
“The findings of the present studies support the proposition that parents’ perception of their children as overweight could have unintended negative consequences on their children’s health,” researchers Eric Robinson and Angelina Sutin write.
Robinson and Sutin conducted two studies, in Australia and Ireland, to determine the effect of parents’ perceptions on their children’s weight. In Australia, 2,823 children were analyzed, and, in Ireland, 5,886 children were analyzed. In Australia, children’s weight was measured once at the beginning of the study at age four or five, then again at age 14 or 15. In Ireland, children’s weight was measured once at the beginning of the study at age nine, then again at age 12 or 13.
“We don’t want children to become fixated with their weight.”
In both studies, the researchers began by asking parents their perception of their child’s weight as either “very overweight,” “overweight,” “normal,” or “underweight.” The actual weight of the children was then measured and recorded. Years later, researchers again measured and recorded the children’s weight. This time, they asked the children a series of questions about their own weight: how they perceived their body size, if they have tried to lose weight, and what they are doing about their weight now.
Of the participating children in Australia, 20 percent were perceived as overweight by their parents. In Ireland, 31 percent were perceived as overweight. In both studies, children originally labeled as overweight gained more weight than their peers identified as weighing a normal amount.
In Australia, children marked as overweight gained an average of 53.9 kg by the ages of 12 or 13, as compared to children originally marked as normal weight by parents, who gained an average of 43.28 kg. A similar trend was seen among children measured in Ireland.
This might seem counter-intuitive, as some would think it is vital for parents to identify their children’s weight problem early. However, the researchers’ interviews with children show that those perceived as overweight by parents went on to report negative body images.
“Once parents recognize that their children are overweight, their children are more likely to perceive their body size as being larger than their peers,” Robinson and Sutin write.
This can be “stressful and psychologically scarring” for children, they add, leading to unhealthy habits and consequential weight gain.
“We don’t want children to become fixated with their weight, and in general we want to encourage positive healthy behaviors to tackle childhood obesity, so a parent could approach helping a child in that way,” Robinson writes in a follow-up email exchange.
Perhaps parents should consider suggesting an apple — rather than a scale — when dealing with an overweight kid.