A new study from Social Science & Medicine reports that a harsh parenting style increases a child’s risk of high BMI and decreased physical health in the future


Developmental psychologists have been interested in how parents impact their child for a long time. Current medical research has long accepted that child development is greatly influenced by parenting style. Their confidence, education level, happiness and self-control are all impacted by the style of parenting. However, the relationship between child and parent is complicated because researchers have a difficult time of finding actual cause-and-effect links between specific actions of parents and future outcomes in children.

A new study, published in Social Science & Medicine has reported of a successful cause-and-effect link between specific parenting actions and a child’s future behaviour. Researchers have determined that harsh, abusive and rejecting behaviour from a parent increases a child’s risk for a higher BMI (body mass index) as an adolescent.

BMI (which is also known as the Quetelet index) is a measure of an individual’s health, using their weight and height. It measures the amount of tissue mass (i.e. muscle, fat, and bone) in an individual and rates them as underweight, normal weight, overweight, or obese, based on that value. Many medical practitioners use a BMI to assess one’s level of health and to determine if they are healthy for their height, age and gender.  A high BMI has been linked to a number of medical complications, including heart problems, complications with the reproductive system, sleep disorders, cancers, gallstones, mental disorders and high blood pressure levels.

Researchers of this study looked at the effects of harsh parenting on future BMI scores for their children, and the degree to which warmth from the other parent buffered these prospective health risks.  Previous research has shown that warmth from a parent will induce proper emotional regulation in a child and lower their stress response; but how this parenting style will protect children from the effects of a harsh parent has yet to be tested. 451 children and their parents participated in the study and were followed for 8 years (grade 7 to age 20). Family interactions were observed during the early years of the study to assess the level of harshness in parents and physical health of the child was assessed throughout the study.

Researchers determined that children who experienced harshness from either parent showed significant decreases in physical health and increases in BMI as they got older. Researchers noted that in all but one case, the decrease in physical health lasted even after children were no longer living with their parents. Researchers also noted that a positive relationship with one parent was able to buffer the association between harsh parenting of the other and changes over time in the child’s physical health.

Surprisingly, researchers noted that although BMI levels for a certain level of warmth from a parent decreased with less harshness from the other parent, the overall increase of warmth from a parent (as the level of harshness in the other stayed constant) increased the BMI levels in the child.  Researchers suggest that health risks of harsh parenting increase as warmth from the other parent increases. Researchers discovered that harshness from a mother may have a stronger impact than harshness from a father. Mother harshness was a predictor of both short-term and long-term changes in physical health.

Taken together, these results show that both a harsh parenting style alone, or in conjunction with warmth from the other parent, can greatly influence the BMI and physical health of their child in the future. Current research suggests that the best methods of ensuring  a healthy future for your child (both physically and mentally) is through warmth and nurturing while they are still developing.




Written By: Alexandra Lostun, BSc

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