A new study on childhood obesity shows that while Canadian parents of overweight and obese children benefit from learning better parenting skills, they are still not very good at using these skills to help their children lose weight.
Obesity and overweight are increasingly becoming a problem for Canada’s youth, with current estimates at 20 per cent of children between the ages of 2 and 17 listed as overweight and 12 per cent obese. These numbers are almost double what they were in the 1970s, according to the 2015 Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care.
Parenting behaviours have a strong influence on children’s eating habits and weight, thus, the authors of the current study set up a pilot program where 54 Canadian parents of preschoolers aged two to five years (33 per cent of whom happened to be overweight) were enrolled in a parenting skills program over a nine-week period, with parents and children interviewed (and the children’s body mass index measured) both at the start of the program and again six months after completion.
The program, called Parents and Tots Together (PTT), embeds weight-related messaging within an overall parenting skills program, covering issues such as parental discipline and responsiveness, television viewing and physical activity while simultaneously delivering instruction on how to control your child’s dietary intake and how to decrease the use of food as a reward for good behaviour.
The results showed that parents who completed the PTT program felt less parental stress and more warmth towards their children and they reported feeling more capable of managing their child’s aggressive behaviour. But nevertheless, after nine months there were no significant changes in the children’s weight, nor did the parents appear to have developed any of the targeted skills for controlling their child’s dietary intake.
“Our preliminary impact results suggest that PTT may reduce parental stress and increase parental warmth and self-efficacy but has minimal impact on children’s weight and related behaviours,” say the study’s authors, led by Kathryn Walton of the Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition at the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ontario.
The problem seems to be that parents often wear blinders when it comes to their child’s eating habits and weight. Studies have shown, for instance, that while often aware of the health dangers of overweight and obesity, parents of overweight children consistently fail to perceive their own child as overweight. Nor do parents often recognize the impact of their parenting practices concerning healthy eating.
“Formative results suggest that parents have a greater interest in general parenting skills than child nutrition and physical activity,” say the study’s authors.
So, how to get the message across? The jury seems to still be out. The study’s authors suggest future efforts in parent skills training need to put more emphasis on weight-related topics. And while the 2015 Canadian Task Force does acknowledge that childhood obesity is “a complex problem that will require action from multiple sectors,” it nonetheless admitted that a significant knowledge gap still exists on best practices for the prevention and management of childhood overweight and obesity.