Micromanaging Your Child’s Diet: Helpful or Hurtful?

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Photo via Getty Images

By Stacy Goldberg

Micromanaging children’s lives has become a widespread issue in the last 15 years. “Helicopter parenting” (HP) describes a hovering, overarching guard over a child well into his adult life. Other terms, such as the “Bubble Wrap Generation,” explain the result of extra precautions and limits put on children by their parents and how a new generation of adults might not be adequately prepared for the obstacles of life.

One study notes this parenting style stems out of the quest to appease parents’ own anxieties.” A further study revealed this anxiety transmits back to the child and counteracts the actual intention of micromanagement: to ensure strong performance in all areas of life.

Impact on Development
Independence is established at an early age. Exploring failure and success builds character and lasting life experiences that are compounded for a fully capable child to develop into a self-sufficient adult. Without living through these challenges, a child will be impaired to face challenges throughout life. This overprotective nature leads to poor consequences, such as lack of opportunity for independence that can last well until the child moves into adulthood.

Anxiety and depression are common in children with helicopter parents, thus translating into their academic, professional and personal life. Helicopter-raised children often experience heightened anxiety when making life decisions. Low self-esteem is created by the inability to be self-sufficient. The child does not know how to make appropriate decisions for himself such as what to eat, what to wear or even how to appropriately pack a backpack or lunchbox.

On a psychological level, HP can result in disordered eating patterns. Dietary restrictions in early childhood have been shown to result in disordered eating later in life. When certain foods are restricted, it has been seen to actually entice children to desire them more, thus encouraging binge-eating behavior. HP is also common among parents with children who are athletes or performers. Television shows highlighting such child-parent relationships regarding a performance activity (i.e. Dance Moms) display the overbearing nature parents provide to children to be the best and excel at their sport. This behavior has shown to be counterproductive to their success.

Nutrition plays an integral role in the success of children, adolescents and teenagers who are athletes. Fueling athletes’ needs, especially during teenage years, is all about balance and moderation. Incorporating enough calories into one’s diet is essential, as is getting appropriate amounts of protein, carbohydrate and fats. If uneducated, uninformed and baseless limits are set on food in families, there can be great pushback by children to parental micromanagement.

Gradually, the rules that helicopter parents use to “protect” their children eventually become barriers children will try to rebel against. If a child cannot have a certain food, for example, he may consume this food in mass quantities before it is restricted again. Lastly, a child severely restricted at home may go to others to seek foods, such as grandparents, friends, school, birthday parties and other outlets.

The child may also exhibit disordered food patterns, such as hoarding food, sneaking food and lying about their dietary intake to appease the parents. This is all setting the scene for dysfunctional eating habits later in life.

Photo via Getty Images

Recent Research
Some parents implement HP techniques when children are deemed “picky eaters.” However, a recent study out of the University of Michigan Center for Human Growth and Development led by Julie Lumeng, a nutritional sciences professor, revealed results that do not support causal relationships between picky eating, pressuring feeding and growth in toddlerhood.  In other words, pressure by parents for children to eat more healthfully does not necessarily create a healthy weight status.

Lumeng states, “In a nutshell, we found that over a year of life in toddlerhood, weight remained stable on the growth chart whether they were picky eaters or not. The kids’ picky eating also was not very changeable. It stayed the same whether parents pressured their picky eaters or not.”

The study did, in fact, find that parental behavior is one of the most influencing factors to child development — children will mirror parents eating habits and food choices. Promoting a positive image to children can impact them greater over a long period of time and prevent damaging relationships with tension during mealtimes. The study further highlighted the need for parents to respect individual preferences and mindfully decide healthy alternatives rather than pressuring one option.

Fly Solo
Children must be allowed to make their own mistakes and build the confidence to correct mistakes, even when it comes to making their own food choices. Life skills can be underdeveloped when parents are controlling many aspects of life, leading to poor communication, judgment skills and disordered eating patterns later in life.

Parents’ information-seeking behaviors, when done in the absence of other HP behaviors, were associated with children’s better decision-making and academic functioning. The solution to this is to allow failure, allow independence and allow children the opportunity to discover preferences, especially those related to food, on their own. Parents can establish loving relationships and healthy eating habits by allowing reasonable accommodation to children’s preferences while still giving them the freedom to explore what those preferences are.

Stacy Goldberg is a nationally recognized nutritional consultant, registered nurse and the CEO of Savorfull (savorfull.com), a Detroit-based company that sources healthy, allergen-friendly foods and provides nutrition-consulting. Savorfull is part of the Quicken Loans Family of Companies.

NO INFORMATION PROVIDED THROUGH STACY GOLDBERG/SAVORFULL IS INTENDED TO DIAGNOSE, TREAT, CURE OR PREVENT ANY DISEASE. YOU SHOULD ALWAYS SPEAK WITH YOUR PHYSICIAN OR OTHER HEALTHCARE PROFESSIONAL BEFORE TAKING ANY MEDICATION OR NUTRITIONAL, HERBAL OR HOMEOPATHIC SUPPLEMENT, OR ADOPTING ANY TREATMENT OR IMPLEMENTING NUTRITIONAL ADVICE FOR A HEALTH PROBLEM.

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