It’s common sense that problems within a marriage can impact the children. However, it’s less common to think about how marital conflict may impact a child’s eating habits and possibly even relate to a teen’s development of or increase in dysfunctional eating patterns.
PROBLEM EATING BEHAVIORS
Blodgett Salafia, Schaefer and Haugen (2014) studied the connections between problems in a marriage and teen girls’ problematic eating behaviors. This was not a study focused on eating disorders such as Anorexia and Bulimia. According to this group, “disordered eating” specifically falls into three categories:
- A drive for thinness – girls may worry that just gaining a pound means they won’t ever stop gaining weight. Or they worry about being just a bit skinnier. (Feelings about being fat play a role here.)
- Dieting – girls eat less than they’d like to or they avoid high fat foods and only eat foods they consider to be slimming (Behaviors about food.)
- Preoccupation with food and weight – girls may engage in behaviors to avoid weight gain, like vomiting based on daily negative thoughts about their bodies and weight. (Thinking influences their daily life.)
POOR TEEN-PARENT RELATIONSHIPS AND DISORDERED EATING
This particular study addressed marital conflict as seen through the eyes of the teen girls. Teen girls responded to questions about their parents. They rated the frequency and intensity of their parents’ conflict and also gave their opinions on how their parents resolved their problems.
The more conflict that existed in a marriage, the more disordered eating these girls showed. In addition to this, these girls had poorer and less positive relationships with both their moms and dads when conflict was high in the marriage.
The most interesting finding of this study relates to the interaction between the teen-parent relationship, the marital conflict and the disordered eating. When marital conflict was present, teens showed poorer perceived relationships with their parents which led to more disordered eating. Unfortunately, previous research supports the idea that teen girls who engage in disordered eating have high chances of continuing those patterns into adulthood and even have the possibility of developing a true eating disorder.
Why is this the case? It may be that teen girls who live in homes with martial conflict experience their parents to be more controlling and less warm. This experience of losing a sense of independence and feeling emotionally disconnected from parents may impact a girl’s ability to manage her emotional experiences in a healthy way. She may experience negative emotions that are expressed in her manner of managing food and her experience of her body.
HOW TO DECREASE RISK OF TEEN DISORDERED EATING
- Manage martial conflict – Marriage researcher John Gottman explains that conflict in marriage is not necessarily a problem. The problem instead tends to be how the conflict is handled. https://www.gottman.com/
- Increase warmth – Have you pulled away from the family due to the stresses in your marriage? Are you emotionally available to your child? Increased physical touch, positive communication and increased involvement in the home may help.
- Decrease control – this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t set limits. However, you may need to assess whether or not your child is able to develop a sense of autonomy and independence – is she able to think on her own about decisions, does she show confidence in her own judgement?
As you can see, I didn’t mention anything about controlling your daughter’s eating habits, changing the food in the home or making sure her weight is stable. The most important part of these findings is the influence of the parent-child relationship and marital conflict. Making changes in these two areas might just change the way your child feels about her body and handles food.
A Christian Perspective
A Biblical perspective on marriage is one that supports the loving relationship between husband and wife. It is one in which husbands are commanded to love their wives and wives are commanded to respect their husbands. The Bible is also clear that when parents do not live Godly lives, their sins are “visited” on their children (Exodus 20:5). An appropriate theology of the word used in this verse does not mean that children must pay for the sins of their parents. On the contrary, in Ezekiel 18:20 we are told that each person must account for his/her own sins–a parent for his/her own and a child for his/her own. However, the “visiting” of sins upon our children is a clear indication that God sees that the sins of the fathers are evidenced in the lives of the children. God looks into our lives and counts the ways a parent’s sin impacts a child.
As parents we may tend to look for the obvious ways in which our ungodly behaviors impact our kids. For example, if we fly into a rage and then see our children yelling at others, we may quickly blame ourselves or our spouse. However, this research helps us become aware that there may be many less obvious consequences of our behaviors. (Click here to visit my Bible Study Blog)
Until next time – Veola
A few limitations to this study:
- the population studied was primarily Caucasian (94%)
- the majority of the families showed highly educated parents (>60%)
- this isn’t a “cause & effect” study – the information found focuses on correlations
Blodgett Salafia, E., Schaefer, M., & Haugen, E. (2014). Connections Between Marital Conflict and Adolescent Girls’ Disordered Eating: Parent-Adolescent Relationship Quality as a Mediator. Journal Of Child & Family Studies,23(6), 1128-1138. doi:10.1007/s10826-013-9771-9
Neumark-Sztainer, D., Wall, M., Larson, N. I., Eisenberg, M. E., & Loth, K. (2011). Dieting and Disordered Eating Behaviors from Adolescence to Young Adulthood: Findings from a 10-Year Longitudinal Study. Journal Of The American Dietetic Association, 111(7), 1004-1011. doi:10.1016/j.jada.2011.04.012
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