In my last blog I described research attesting to the potential parental influences on children’s addiction to food. This blog expands on the topic of protecting children from food addiction by discussing the impact family dysfunction and family food environment can have on children’s attitudes and behaviors regarding food.
A dysfunctional family environment may predispose children to experience psychological problems in general, but dysfunction surrounding food more specifically predisposes them to dysfunctional eating. Just as children with parents who have alcohol problems tend to risk impulsive behavior and practice greater drug and alcohol use and abuse, children with parents who suffer from dysfunctional eating may become victims of the same family-transmitted vulnerability to reward sensitivity over the reinforcing substance of food. The family’s attitude about food, appearance and weight serves as the backdrop against which children learn to develop their own attitudes and to model behaviors.
The family environment is the first place children learn about food and activity. Though research calls for community-wide programs to combat obesity and food addiction in children, education and intervention should start where the problem starts: in the home. Family-based prevention strategies should focus on time spent on sedentary activities like TV viewing, the consumption of sweet snacks and high energy drinks, and the low intake of vegetables. The family food environment must show understanding of nutrition and concern for disease prevention; it must model positive food intake and food-related behavior; it must limit sedentary activity; and it must profess positive beliefs and practices about child feeding.
On a more covert level, research shows disordered eating as a manifested symptom of deeper family conflict and dysfunction. Women with Bulimia Nervosa and Binge Eating Disorder often describe their family environments as exhibiting high conflict, criticism and over-protectiveness and low cohesion, empathy and emotional warmth. More generalized research confirms the negative relationship between the family’s dysfunctional environment and healthful dietary intake and the positive relationship between family cohesion and healthful eating.
Along with parental influences, the family food environment can shape children’s attitudes and behaviors concerning food. Environmental and cultural factors come into play as well, and will be addressed in upcoming blogs.
Kristy L. Carlisle is a school counselor and a mental health counselor in training at Rider University. Her interests include protecting children from cyber-bullying and from food addiction.