Recently I watched the Academy Award winning film Monster’s Ball. A morbidly obese young boy whose father is about to be executed sneaks a chocolate bar while his mother is out, only to be verbally and physically assaulted by her when she returns and discovers a smudge of chocolate on his face. This is an extreme example, but it highlights the complex relationship children and parents can have with food and eating.
There is no doubt that childhood obesity is a huge public health problem with complex causes and far reaching effects. Michelle Obama’s efforts, now entering their second year, are admirable. The identified culprits that she has targeted; a sedentary lifestyle and aggressive marketing efforts of unhealthy foods by the food industry, play a significant role.
However, in addition to targeting interventions focused on the food industry and physical activity, it is critical to recognize the meaning of food and eating in parent-child relationships. An example from my behavioral pediatrics practice illustrates this point.
Sylvia brought her four-year-old son Andrew to see me because “he’s always eating”(details have been changed to protect privacy.) An engaging, plump little boy, he was enthralled by the Dunkin Donuts across the street from my office. Sylvia described constant battles around his demands for sweets.
But over the course of our 60-minute visit, other important issues emerged. Andrew’s father, Richard, had lost his job and the family had moved three times in the past year. Richard struggled with severe depression. In addition to the battles around foods, Andrew was having increasing numbers of temper outbursts, and his mother revealed to me that she was at times unable to contain her own rage. She had even on occasion beaten him with a belt. As Sylvia became more relaxed and began to open up, she shared that she had been physically abused as a child.
In helping to manage Andrew’s out of control heating habits, it was essential to recognize the connection between Andrew’s insatiable appetite and the stress he was experiencing in his relationships with both his mother and father. Supporting these relationships was the aim of my work with this family.
If the child in Monster’s Ball is one end of the continuum of disordered eating, and Andrew in the middle, in my general pediatric practice I see, at the other end of the continuum, the relatively minor everyday challenges of parenting that are inextricably linked to later eating habits.
A mother whose child has sensitivity to textures of foods may feel inadequate in the face of her child’s picky eating. This in turn may lead her, at moments of desperation, to force food into her child’s mouth, setting the stage for a lifelong distorted relationship with food. The primary care setting offers an opportunity for early intervention and repair of these types of difficulties. In addition, disordered sleep patterns are closely tied to risk of obesity. These patterns develop in the first few years of life, and a primary care clinician can play an important role in both development of healthy sleep habits and in setting patterns in a healthy direction when they go off course.
Supporting parent-child relationships is a critical element to add to this “war” on obesity. Investment in primary care and mental health care, as well as in programs that have been shown to support parent-child relationships that are at risk is essential. For example, the Yale based Minding the Baby program is a preventive home visiting program that aims to support parent-child relationships in young families stressed by limited economic resources.
Research by Jack P. Shonkoff, MD founding director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, has demonstrated that safe, stable, and nurturing relationships may protect children against poor health later in life. Children who develop a strong sense of self in the context of these secure relationships are more likely to make healthy lifestyle choices.
And a word of caution regarding the language of the “war” on childhood obesity. I wonder about the experience of an overweight child who is exposed to this news. Shame, confusion, and fear- these powerful emotions may go unprocessed. At the very least, these headlines should offer an opportunity for conversation among adults and children about diet and lifestyle choices.