Children, Grownups, Stress, and Obesity (Part 2)

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Childhood Obesity News has been looking at the “Stress in America” surveys of recent years, as interpreted by the American Psychological Association. One disturbing finding, as we discussed, is that parents questioned in that particular study seem strangely oblivious to any realization of mental and emotional pain in their own children.

This is especially true when the children’s stress results from observing and feeling the effects of their parents’ stress. Of the moms and dads who responded, about 70% were complacently convinced that their own stress levels didn’t affect the kids.

But they are mistaken: 90% of the kids, and that’s almost the totality of the sample, reported an acute awareness of parental stress. If a wigged-out mother or father were the only thing on the horizon to worry about, that would be bad enough. Unfortunately, children and teens have a multitude of serious and sometimes shocking reasons to experience harmful stress. They may not worry about the same things that adults do, but they have plenty of cause just the same.

Early last year, a Cornell University study showed that stressed children tend to become obese adolescents, and the researchers isolated some of the causes for the young people’s unease with the world. The poverty levels of the families were taken into consideration, as well as overcrowded and substandard housing situations, exposure to violence, lack of access to resources, and general “family turmoil.”

Journalist Susan Kelley-Cornell quotes one of the study authors, environmental psychologist Gary Evans:

There’s some evidence that parts of the brain that are vulnerable and sensitive to stress, particularly early in life, are some of the same parts involved in this self-regulatory behavior… If it’s the cumulative impact of stress on these families that is important, that means an intervention that only looks at one stressor — say, just drug abuse, which is how most interventions are designed — is doomed to fail.

For girls it’s even worse. They are not only more sensitive to conditions in the family’s emotional environment, they are more likely to respond with binge eating and other undesirable behaviors that lead to obesity.

Summarizing a study on cumulative social risk and obesity, Dr. Vincent Iannelli wrote that a girl of toddler age might escape unharmed if only one social stressor is present in her life, but when the stressors start to pile on, the prognosis worsens dramatically and she will likely become obese by age 5. Food insecurity and housing insecurity are precipitating causes, as is physical abuse. Not surprisingly, little girls also experience a lot of stress when the mother is depressed and/or habituated to alcohol or drugs, or when the father is in jail.

Dr. Pretlow says:

Do not individuals typically get drunk to numb pain or smoke two packs a day as an antidepressant and to cope with stress, rather than for casual recreation? […] Stress is always present, hence people may be oblivious to the fact that they are easing pain with pleasurable foods.

But while parents themselves might be oblivious to their improper and inappropriate use of food as psychiatric medicine, kids are all too well aware. One basic human trait that shows up over and over again in the yearly surveys is the “monkey-see, monkey-do” tendency. This is another built-in survival trait for young mammals everywhere, who observe the activities of adults and imitate them, thus assuring their ability to procure food, choose or create suitable living quarters for themselves, protect themselves from with enemies, and so on. Unfortunately, they can’t help following the adult example, for better or worse.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Key Findings,” APA.org
Source: “Stress raises kids’ risk for teen obesity,” Futurity.org, 02/02/12
Source: “Social Stressors and Obesity in Young Girls,” About.com: Pediatrics, 04/18/12
Image by amslerPIX (David Amsler).

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Childhood Obesity News | OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say | Dr. Robert A. Pretlow
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