University Park, Pa. --- A Penn State study has found that parents' degree of concern about their daughter's weight and their adoption of restrictions on certain foods were associated with lower self esteem among overweight girls as young as 5 years of age.
Dr. Leann Birch, professor and head of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, says her group's research has repeatedly shown that restricting foods has negative effects on children. Birch explains, "When kids are given a standard - for example, eat only a few potato chips not the whole bag - and they go beyond the limit, they feel bad about themselves. Restriction, which is often seen as an appropriate response on the part of the parents when a child becomes overweight, may actually make the problem worse.
"A better approach is to have healthy food in the house so that kids don't have to be restricted. Encourage girls to be more active by finding physical activities, such as dance or sports, they can enjoy," she adds. "And, don't tease girls about their weight, even in a gentle way. It's clear from our study that the notion that one's weight can be a social liability emerges early on." The Penn State study, co-authored by Kirsten Krahnstoever Davison, research associate, and Birch, is detailed in the January issue of Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. The paper is titled "Weight Status, Parent Reaction, and Self-Concept in 5-year-old Girls." The girls who participated in the study were weighed and measured and their heights and weights converted to a percentile ranking used nationally. The researchers then assessed the girls' self esteem with the use of questionnaires in one-on-one interviews. The components of self esteem probed in the interviews included the girls' assessment of their cognitive ability, physical ability, peer relationships and body esteem.
Both the fathers and mothers of the girls were also given questionnaires developed in Birch's laboratory to access their concern about their daughter's weight and the degree to which they restricted their daughter's access to food.
Girls who were heavy for their height reported lower body esteem and lower perceived cognitive ability than girls with lower weight. Higher paternal concern about their daughter's weight was associated with lower perceived physical ability among the girls. Higher maternal concern about their daughter's weight was associated with lower perceived physical ability and cognitive ability among the girls. Finally, higher maternal restriction of girls' access to foods was associated with lower perceived physical and cognitive ability by higher weight girls but not by lower weight girls. The authors write: "Public health programs that raise parental awareness of childhood overweight without also providing constructive and blame-free alternatives for addressing child weight problems may be detrimental to children's mental health."