“Harsh Parenting” Is Linked to Childhood Obesity

Image Source: Thinkstock
Image Source: Thinkstock

We all lose our temper with our kids sometimes. I consider it pretty par for the course in parenting myself. But I do wonder sometimes: What are the limits here? How much yelling is OK, and when have I crossed a line?

According to a recent study out of Iowa State University, “harsh parenting” may lead to poor health outcomes in kids, specifically higher body-mass indexes (i.e., obesity). And in case you’re wondering what exactly constitutes “harsh parenting,” study authors defined this as “angry, hostile, and anti-social” behavior (though not falling into the category of abuse).

In families where “harsh parenting” was practiced, children were more likely to exhibit symptoms of stress, and the researchers concluded that excessive, long-term stress was what in turn led to their health issues. And no, it didn’t matter if one parent was calm and nurturing: Just having one “harsh” parent was enough to elevate the stress levels of the children, and increase their likelihood of being overweight or having poor physical health as the children got older.

But before we all go freaking out and scrutinizing every little aspect of our own parenting, let’s remember that as is the case with studies of this kind, new research must be taken with a grain of salt. Even Thomas Schofield, lead author of the study, warns that the study “leads to more questions than answers,” but that the correlation does exist and it’s something we need to take seriously.

As a mom, I know studies like this tend to get under my skin. I consider myself a pretty gentle parent, one who doesn’t resort to yelling or aggression on a regular basis. But let’s be honest here: voices are raised in my house, often on a daily basis. And when I see a headline like this, I wonder if I, too, am too “harsh” sometimes, and whether I could be harming my children in some way.

However, what we all need to remind ourselves of is that it’s normal for parents to raise their voices sometimes and set appropriate boundaries with their children. It’s all in how you do it. What I glean from the study is that behavior that rejects or shuts down children in some way is the problem here, not the occasional frustration or vent from a parent.

Lately, when I start to become really temperamental with my kids, I try to practice a bit of mindfulness. I tell them, “Mommy’s feeling frustrated with your behavior right now. Mommy is really upset.” Then I’ll sit down on the couch — or if I’m feeling like I’m really going to explode, I’ll leave the room for a few minutes.

Like anyone else, I find that I get most irritated when I haven’t been taking good enough care of myself (not sleeping enough, working too hard, etc.). And isn’t that so often the case? I think that all of us parents could use a little more self-care and support. Otherwise, we’ll have nothing left to give to our kids.

As for my own children, they are pretty good at telling me when my venting or yelling has gone to a place that’s unhealthy. The other day, my 3-year-old opened the sliding door of our coat closet, pulled the door off its hinges, and almost knocked it onto himself. This was after I had told him repeatedly not to open the door himself.

And yes, I raised my voice. He was fine, but when I saw the closet door come off its hinges next to his little body, I totally freaked out. I couldn’t hide it, or tone it down. “I TOLD YOU NOT TO DO THAT!” I screamed.

And then I looked down at him. He was scared, too. He burst into tears and said, “Mommy, I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I will never do that again. I will never be happy again!”

His words broke my heart, and I realized that as scared as I was, it wasn’t worth yelling about it. Yes, he needed to learn to listen to what I say, especially when it involves his safety, but there are more peaceful ways to do that. You can be strong and effective without being scary.

He forgave me easily. (A few kisses and hugs did the trick.) And I forgave myself, which is important too. But it’s vital to remember just how much of an impact we can have on our kids. We are, after all, the ones in power and it’s all to easy for us to misuse that power.

I think — and hope — that most of us fall outside of the definition of “harsh” when it comes to our parenting, and that we’re not in fact causing long-term problems for our kids by yelling every so often. At the same time, we need to remember just how vulnerable our children are to stress of any kind. Their brains and bodies are forming at a rapid pace, and we need to be continually careful about creating an environment of safety and love for them as they grow.

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