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Maternal concerns about body weight may be the third leading cause of body image problems in adolescents, according to a study by Harvard Medical School researchers.
Scientists found that mothers who over-emphasize their concerns about body weight are significantly more likely to pass on these attitudes to their children.
The study, which appears in this month’s issue of the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, marks the first time researchers have evaluated the relationship between eating habits of mothers and their children through separate surveys.
According to Alison E. Field, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Children’s Hospital Boston and the primary author of the study, parents should be more careful in promoting a healthier way of life to their children.
“Research shows that, in general, people that diet still weigh more than their peers,” she said. “The most important thing to do is for families to focus less on weight and more on eating healthier and exercising, and promoting a better way of life.”
In the survey, 5,331 girls and 3,881 boys between ages 12 and 18 were asked questions involving their personal weight concerns and the attitudes of their mothers towards body image. In a separate survey, mothers were asked about their concerns towards their own weight and the weight of their children.
The researchers found that 33 percent of girls and eight percent of boys were concerned about their weight and wanted to be thinner. Girls who thought that their mothers wanted them to be thin were two to three times more likely to worry about losing weight.
According to Field, the findings confirm the influence of parents’ words and actions on their children’s attitude toward body image.
“While it’s less likely that parents are directly saying something about their children’s weight, a mother’s desire to become thinner can directly impact her children’s attitude,” Field said.
Field also said that the study showed a surprisingly large number of mothers who had a strong desire to become thinner. Nearly 54 percent of mothers were unsatisfied with their weight.
“We often see weight as being an issue for teenage girls, but this study shows that mothers are often more concerned about weight than their children,” she said.
In addition to parental influence, Field acknowledged the presence of other variables that often impact teenage attitudes towards weight. She said that her research showed that media influences ranked first as a predictor of weight concerns in teenage girls, peer influences ranked second, and parental influences ranked third.
Field said that she hopes to continue research on the relationship between mothers’ and children’s attitudes toward health. Some of her current research focuses on looking at a mother’s own history of an eating disorder and its impact on the eating habits of her children.
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