A new study in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics found that parenting style, specifically insecure parenting, can lead to childhood obesity. Dismissing children's negative emotions (such as worry and anxiety), as it turns out, can lead to overeating junk food. Parents need to respond with empathy and teach their children how to regulate their emotions.

Emotional regulation, or learning to cope with negative emotions in an adaptive manner, is a crucial skill for children (and adults, if we're being honest). Learning and practicing adaptive coping mechanisms helps kids navigate obstacles and deal with failure. Emotional regulation is the difference between becoming paralyzed with anxiety every time a test is placed on a child's desk or taking a few deep breaths and working through that test without worry. It is the difference between melting down when a playmate finds a new friend or finding a friendly face in the crowd and starting a new friendship.

Kids need to learn how to regulate their emotions so that they can cope with the ups and downs of daily living, as well as unexpected obstacles that arise along the way. Unfortunately, it's not as simple as a few deep breaths and a positive mantra. Emotional regulation requires time, patience and modeling from parents. Kids are not born with these skills; they need to be taught.

A new study out of the University of Illinois draws a startling connection between poor parenting skills and obesity. Parents who regularly dismiss or punish their children's anxieties, this study cautions, could be setting their children up for maladaptive coping strategies, including overeating.

This particular study focused on what they refer to as "insecure parenting" and found that parents in this category were likely to respond to their children's distress by dismissing it or by becoming distressed. They also had a tendency to use comfort food to calm upset children, did not schedule regular mealtimes and allowed more screen time.

This study, although small, sheds some light on an important topic. It's not that we need to over think every parenting decision we make along the way, but we do need to focus on our children's emotions and how we can teach our children to cope when life is hard. It's up to us to help our children build these skills over time. Negative patterns form quickly and can lead to a lifetime of unhealthy choices, but if we take a proactive approach to coping with difficult feelings we can help our children thrive. As easy as it might feel to dismiss a child's worries as silly or inconsequential, those worries feel very big and important to the child. It's time to listen to the needs of our children.

Listen to your children the way that you would want someone to listen to you. Stop what you're doing, get down to eye level and use eye contact and body language to convey empathy and understanding.

Listen carefully

Kids experience negative emotions for a variety of reasons. Academic pressure, peer issues and other environmental stress can all trigger anxiety, sadness, anger and even depression. Kids want to be heard when they're feeling upset, and often a parent is the first person they approach. If you dismiss their emotions, your kids hear that they are not important. If you stop what you're doing and listen to what your kids have to say, they feel heard and understood. They are also more likely to seek help from you the next time they feel upset.

Listen to your children the way that you would want someone to listen to you. Stop what you're doing, get down to eye level and use eye contact and body language to convey empathy and understanding. Let them talk before you try to fix the problem.

Teach feelings identification

Often kids approach a parent looking sad, angry or frustrated but they're not sure why they feel that way. It's important to help children learn to identify and describe their feelings so that they can get them out and work through them.

Often, kids will retell a scenario that upset them but fail to make the connections between the scenario and how they actually feel as a result. We have to help them learn to connect the dots so that they stop internalizing negative emotions. Feelings pictures, looking at facial cues in story books and matching colors to feelings are all great places to begin.

Teach adaptive strategies

lollipopsTurning on the TV and eating a bowl of sugary cereal might brighten the mood in the home for a moment, but it won't do much to resolve the feelings that triggered the unhappiness in the first place. Many parents experience an intense need to fix a problem for a child or take away the pain immediately, and they rely on quick mood boosters in those tumultuous moments. Not only do these quick fixes fail to actually fix the problem, but they can also lead to poor choices and maladaptive coping strategies in the future (as is the case with food and TV). Kids need to learn how to cope with negative emotions in the moment so that they develop healthy coping strategies to utilize as they grow.

It's essential to help kids understand that big feelings are OK. It's perfectly acceptable to feel angry and frustrated when something goes terribly wrong or to cry when your feelings are hurt. Parents have a tendency to shush kids in the face of big feelings, and that sends a confusing message. Kids should be encouraged to release their emotions first, and then implement appropriate coping strategies.

Deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and guided imagery are all relaxation strategies that are easy for children to learn while paper tearing, anger thermometers and role playing use of "I statements" will help children learn to express feelings of anger without blowing up.

Bottom Line^ Teach your children to express and cope with their feelings so that they don't need to eat or watch their way to happiness.

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