Perceived Parental Control and Parental Feeding Style

Reprinted from Eating Disorders Review
May/June 2008 Volume 19, Number 3
©2008 Gürze Books

For some time, it has been believed that controlling, intrusive parents contribute to the development of eating disorders in their children. And, the problem of increasing childhood obesity has been tied to parental feeding practices as well. Two recent studies highlight the effects parents can have on obesity and the development of eating disorders.

Perceived parental control and development of disordered eating

Research into the relationships between controlling parents and eating disorders has produced mixed results, according to a team of Belgian researchers. The results of their case-control study of normal children and a sample of patients with eating disorders showed that elevated levels of paternalbut not maternalpsychological control and maladaptive perfectionism were significant variables between parental psychological control and eating disorder symptoms (J Nerv Ment Dis 2008;196:144).

Bart Soenens, PhD and colleagues studied 60 women in their late teens who were still living with their parents. The group of 60 included 37 with anorexia nervosa (AN), restricting type, and 23 with BN. A control group included 85 female psychology students in their late teens. The study participants completed several questionnaires, including the Dutch version of the Eating Disorders Inventory II, a 7-item questionnaire that examined psychological control, derived from the Children’s Report on Patient Behavior Inventory, and 3 scales from the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale.

Perception of paternal control

A significant difference was found between women with an eating disorder and the controls in their perception of paternal, but not maternal, psychological control. These differences in parental psychological control only applied to women with BN; the group of patients with restrictive-type AN fell in between the BN group and the normal control group but did not differ significantly from either of both groups in their ratings of paternal psychological control.

Several significant positive associations were noted between paternal psychological control and severity of eating disorder symptoms, and these associations were more pronounced in the control group than in the eating disorders group

Finally, this study showed that paternal psychological control and maternal psychological control are indirectly related to eating disorders symptoms through their relation with maladaptive perfectionism. According to the authors, these findings support a sequence of events beginning with intrusive and conditionally approving parenting that carries over into eating disorders symptoms through the development of perfectionistic and self-evaluative processes.

The second study: parental feeding styles and disordered eating

The concern about increasing obesity among children has led to attempts to find ways to predict which children are at greatest risk. One risk factor that has come under the spotlight is parental feeding practices. That is, do children respond to over-control by parents by simply eating more?

Two British psychologists examined the relationships between parenting styles, feeding practices and body mass index in a community sample of mothers and fathers of preschool children in the United Kingdom (Appetite 2008; 50:477). J. Blissett and E. Haycraft asked 96 parents of 48 children (19 boys and 29 girls with a mean age of 42 months) to complete a series of self-report questionnaires, including the Child Feeding Questionnaire (Birch et al, 2001), the Eating Disorders Inventory-II, and the Parenting Styles and Dimensions Questionnaire. Employment status and occupation were assessed with the National Statistics Socio-Economic Classification, a self-coded questionnaire that reviews professional occupations. Information was also gained about the number of mealtimes that the parents spent with their child in an average week, the child’s birth order, breastfeeding history, and the proportion of time during the week that the child spent in daycare.


The only significant difference found between boys and girls was that fathers of boys reported they ate with their child more often than did fathers of girls. The fathers in the study were significantly older than were the mothers, the mothers ate with their children more often than did fathers, mothers monitored their children much more than did fathers, and mothers reported greater levels of drive for thinness than did fathers.

Among the mothers, restrictive feeding practices were negatively correlated with maternal education and positively correlated with maternal bulimia. Authoritative parenting by mothers was negatively correlated with both drive for thinness and bulimia. Maternal permissive parenting was positively correlated with drive for thinness and body dissatisfaction and the amount of time the child spent in daycare.

In fathers, monitoring was negatively correlated with socioeconomic status and bulimia and positively correlated with the amount of time the child spent in daycare. Paternal use of pressure to eat was negatively correlated with child body mass index (BMI z) and positively correlated with the amount of time the child spent in daycare. Paternal restriction of their child’s food intake was positively correlated with paternal BMI and the amount of time the child spent in daycare.

The authors reported that parenting style may not have a direct impact on a child’s BMI until child food selection and consumption become more autonomous.

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