According to research done by our team of psychologists, Americans stigmatize parents of overweight children and particularly blame them for their children’s weight.
The more a person considers parents as responsible for their child’s obesity, the more likely they are to view such parents as negligent, indulgent, and inept.
In the US, around 1 in 3 children have body mass indices that would be classed as overweight or obese. The figure has climbed throughout the COVID-19 epidemic, implying a rising number of parents experience shame on account of their child’s weight.
This parental weight stigma is just beginning to gain serious scientific attention, but it has the potential to have significant repercussions on parents, children, and families.
For instance, family courts in the United States and worldwide have removed obese children from their parents’ custody in significant part due to their weights. Family separation may have devastating consequences for children. Our results implies that if judges react like our research participants did, they may consider parents with bigger children as being terrible parents just because their children are heavier.
In truth, weight is not primarily determined by personal choices. In actuality, dieting might result in weight increase. Excess weight is the result of a complex interaction of genes, environment, nutrition, and physical activity.
Psychologists are also aware that weight stigma is associated with pervasive negative outcomes, such as bullying, ignorant comments, and painful feelings of invisibility, as well as diminished educational and economic opportunities and worse medical outcomes that are not solely attributable to an individual’s weight. Insidiously, experiencing weight stigma may contribute to weight increase and other undesirable outcomes.
What consequences does blaming and stigmatizing the parents of overweight children have on the parents, their children, and the crucial parent-child relationships for healthy development?
We do not yet know, for instance, if obese children are aware that their parents are stigmatized. If this is the case, these children may not only be ashamed of their weight, but they may also mistakenly feel responsible for how others treat their parents.
For this study, which was published in the journal Psychological Science, we conducted three tests with over 1,000 US volunteers — around 75% white and 25% of other races/ethnicities – during 2022.
Participants were randomly allocated to examine one of four line drawings portraying a mother or father with an 8-year-old daughter or son. In addition, we included a brief description of the parent and kid.
Two of the line drawings and descriptions indicated and described the infant as having a “healthy” weight. In the last two, the youngster was shown and labeled as “obese.” The parents were always portrayed and stated as having a good body mass index. This allowed us to infer that the research participants’ emotions to parents were a result of their children’s weights and not their own.
We asked participants a few brief questions regarding the quality of the adult’s parenting. Participants also responded to questions on what they felt affected the weight of children (as well as their academic performance and athleticism, to help obscure the focus of the study). Participants were given 100 “responsibility points” to assign to four possible causes of childhood obesity: parent conduct, child behavior, hereditary factors, and social factors.
As anticipated, those who saw the obese child assigned more responsibility points to the parent’s actions and evaluated this parent as a poorer parent. Consistent with previous research, we discovered that the gender of the father and the kid made no impact.
This is consistent with earlier study indicating that parents are blamed for their children’s obesity more than society or the children themselves.
We also examined if offering alternate explanations for a child’s weight would reduce the amount of blame placed on the parents. When we informed participants that the child’s obesity was caused by a thyroid problem, they viewed the mother less negatively and held her less accountable.
Next, our team is investigating the impact of parents’ own weight, wealth, and race/ethnicity on the stigma aimed at them due to their child’s obesity.