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Parents' pandemic stress may have impacted their children's eating habits

Experts are worried that this trend may affect kids for years to come

Young girl eating pasta
Photo (c) Catherine Falls Commercial - Getty Images
The COVID-19 pandemic has placed a significant burden on parents’ mental health due to all the extra stress. Now, researchers from the University of Houston explored what impact parents’ stress has had on their kids. Their findings showed that pandemic-related stress may have had a negative impact on kids’ eating habits. 

“The stress doesn’t just go away,” said researcher Leslie Frankel. “Many parents are still feeling uneasy and a parent who is overwhelmed and experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety may not pay attention or acknowledge their child’s cues of hunger and fullness.” 

Parents’ job and financial stress affects kids’ eating habits

For the study, the researchers surveyed nearly 120 parents who had children between the ages of two and seven from April 2020, to June 2020. Parents answered questions about their stress levels during the pandemic, what their children’s eating habits were like, what role they played in their kids’ eating habits, and their overall mental health. 

The researchers learned that parents were dealing with two different types of stressors during the pandemic: job and financial security-related stress and family safety-related stress. In either case, these stress levels contributed to the ways parents went about handling meal and snack times with their kids. 

The study showed that many parents resorted to eating habits that they didn’t follow before the pandemic. This could mean that parents were using food as a way to reward their kids, or kids were encouraged to eat -- even at times when they weren’t hungry. The researchers refer to these habits as nonresponsive feeding behaviors. 

The biggest risk associated with nonresponsive feeding behaviors is that it creates a sense of distrust in kids to learn about their appetites. In these cases, kids struggle to really know when they’re full, which can ultimately increase the risk of overeating and obesity. When parents aren’t asking kids questions about how much they’ve eaten, if they’re full, or if they’re hungry, it makes it difficult for kids to understand when they should be eating and when it’s time to stop. 

“These parents do not have the time, energy, or emotional capacity to engage in optimal feeding behaviors, so they resort to maladaptive feed behaviors, such as using food as a reward or pressuring their kids to eat,” said Frankel. “As a result, their children are not able to self-regulate what or how much food they are putting into their bodies, which could have harmful consequences in the long run.” 

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