Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Differences between European Americans and African Americans in the Association between Child Obesity and Disrupted Parenting

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Differences between European Americans and African Americans in the Association between Child Obesity and Disrupted Parenting

Article excerpt


The rate of obesity among children has more than doubled the past 30 years (Berkowitz and Stunkard 2002) increasing concern about its physical and emotional health consequences (Braet, Mervielde, and Vandereycken 1997; DeJong and Kleck 1986). This increase has been especially marked among African-American children; rates of overweight and obesity among African American girls, for example, are nearly twice those of European American girls (Baskin, Ard, Franklin, and Allison 2005). Awareness of these trends has contributed to a growing interest in the social psychological causes and consequences of childhood obesity. One of the most active areas of research has emphasized the association between childhood obesity and dysfunctional family relationships. While this line of research has produced a number of important results (Favaro and Santonastaso 1995; Fulkerson, McGuire, Neumark-Sztainer, Story, French, and Perry 2002; Mendelson, White, and Schliecker 1995; Renman, Engstrom, Silfverdal, and Aman 1999; Steinberg and Phares 2001), we argue that it has also been limited in ways that reflect the medical and psychiatric perspectives long dominant in this field. In particular, there tends to be an assumption about causal direction-that poor parenting tends to make children overweight.

In this paper, we draw from the family stress model developed by Conger and colleagues (Conger and Conger 2002) to propose an alternative perspective for understanding this relationship. According to this model, hardship and negative events create family stress. The emotional distress that results disrupts parenting which then leads to child and adolescent maladjustment. The model indicates that the Stressor produces emotions and behaviors in parents that create problematic outcomes for children because they disrupt the parents' ability to engage in high quality parenting. Support for this model has been demonstrated in other studies using the same two samples utilized in the present study.

We argue that, among European American parents, child overweight and obesity disrupts the quality of parenting children receive because the stigma associated with obesity acts as a Stressor, making effective parenting more difficult. Theory and research on determinants of parenting have established that a child's characteristics do impact the parenting practices of mothers and fathers (Belsky 1984; Vondra and Belsky 1989). To date, this work has largely been limited to consideration of the effects of a child's temperament and has shown that parents are often less involved when their children have difficult temperaments (Lytton 1990; Sampson and Laub 1993; Simons, Johnson, Conger, and Elder 1998). Drawing from both Conger's (Conger, Wallace, Sun, Simons, McLoyd, and Brody 2002; Conger and Conger 2002) family stress model and research on the impact of stigma as a parental Stressor, we argue that obesity is another child characteristic that is likely to have a disruptive effect on quality of involvement for some parents.


Parenting an overweight child may be stressful for a number of reasons. Fears about obesity's health consequences may be a significant Stressor. Parents may feel guilty or frustrated by their inability to influence their child's weight trajectory. This may, in turn, exacerbate parents' worries about their children's physical and emotional well-being. Parents may also be embarrassed about having an obese child. Such feelings may have been exacerbated by negative comments from family members, school officials, or health care providers. All of these experiences may result in the feeling of stigma: a discrediting characteristic that influences both how people perceive themselves and how they are perceived and treated by others (Goffman 1963). In particular, stigma tends to evoke assessments of incompetence and lack of moral trustworthiness and is accompanied by status loss, negative treatment, and strained interactions for both the stigmatized person and his or her intimate associates (Jones, Farina, Hastorf, Markus, Miller, and Scott 1984; Link and Phelan 2001); we argue that such assessments may be particularly salient sources of stress for parents of overweight children. …

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