Childhood & Teen Obesity: Adult Risk Practices at Different Life Stages

By Norma J. Goodwin, MD, Founder & President                                                                                   

Adults often unintentionally increase the risk of childhood and teen obesity. Examples in different life stages follow.

 Childhood and Teen YearsImage preview

We all go through life stages, and each stage can affect a person’s risk of becoming overweight or obese. It’s primarily the food and physical activity practices people engage in as they go through life that increase or decrease a person’s risk of becoming obese. Related adult practices, values and attitudes during different life stages follow.

  • Infancy – This is the stage when all children either are “cute’ or considered cute. They must rely on parental actions regarding healthy feeding, regular health check-ups, and food not being used as a pacifier. Also, working parents must be aware of the food and physical activity related practices used by caretakers, especially loving grandparents.
  • Childhood – There are two major influences on food and physical activity at this stage: (a) parents, who do the food shopping (including fast foods), and make and carry out decisions that encourage and support regular physical activity, and (b) schools where physical education classes, and/or other physical activity during recess, have decreased markedly.
  • AdolescenceThere are three key stages of adolescence:

Early Adolescence is often the last chance parents have to significantly influence the eating and physical activity choices and practices of their children, so it’s important that they take special advantage of this period.

Mid-Adolescence is the period when peers and the environment assume much greater influence over teens regarding values, choices, and practices than their parents. Thus, parents need special strategies to exert influence at this time.

Late Adolescence primarily involves late teen and young adult focused values, choices and practices. In other words, parental influence decreases even more, and independent thinking, behavior, and peer influence markedly increase.

·         Parents and Other Adults of Childbearing Age – Because children practice what they see (much more than what they hear), parents – and other adults who are close to them– must eat healthy, and practice physical fitness (rather than being “couch potatoes”) if they want to avoid their children, or other children around them, becoming overweight, and then often obese.

Further, in low-income families, there is a greater risk of becoming obese than in families that are better off economically. Reasons may often relate to (a) decreased educational levels, including health knowledge or health literacy, which influences health practices, (b) decreased community access to high quality foods and safe exercising opportunities, and (c) decreased access to, or use of, preventive health services.  In addition, the challenges and stresses of daily living in disadvantaged households and communities are obviously major contributors to the greater prevalence of overweight and obesity.

Many families with two working parents also experience stresses that interfere with their devoting adequate time to making healthy food choices, food preparation, physical activity, and overall child care. In addition, most single parent households experience additional challenges of daily living.

Mid-life (some call it “middle aged”) Adults – This stage of life is also often associated with multiple stresses of family and social life as well as work related stresses and challenges. These impact on lifestyles and health practices, including parent/adult interactions with children and youth. Further, some become early grandparents, or second generation/substitute parents (see the following discussion of grandparent practices).

Aging or Senior Years including for Many, Being Grandparents– When grandparents live near or in the same household with their grandchildren, they often provide much support – as babysitters, caretakers and sometimes, as second generation parents. Regardless of the particular situation, many grandparents identify giving food, snacks, and desserts to children as a show of their love, or even as pacifiers. The result may well be the adoption of similar values by their grandchildren.

Special Note: The following attitudes on body image preferences from three African American tween focus groups conducted by Health Power were especially enlightening, and merit in-depth study regarding the influences of peers, culture, and the environment.   

Three focus groups (or group discussions) of 11 to 14 year old disadvantaged African American youths (tweens) – two female and one male – in Brooklyn, New York commented about body image preferences as follows:

Participants in the two female groups preferred “being a little overweight” – – because “boys                          like girls with “boobs and butts”, and

– Participants in the male group preferred girls who were “a little thick”.

.      NOTE: Because Knowledge + Action = Power, visit the Health Power website’s Food and Fitness Channel including its many healthy and delicious recipes, Tip Sheets, and Overweight and Obesity Section. Each area provides much additional information to help prevent  obesity in all age groups, and as a result of related adult influences.

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