We are living in an age where the parent-child relationship is much more likely to thrive compared to 50 years ago. Technology, educational opportunities, and marital expectations have all led to more children staying in regular contact with their parents as they grow up. There’s no denying how this relationship can improve a child’s emotional well-being, but can it also benefit their physical health?

In a recent study, published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, researchers from the University of Guelph found that the bond between parent and child, especially father and son, can have a lasting impact on weight and sleep quality among adolescents and young adults.

"Much of the research examining the influence of parents has typically examined only the mother's influence or has combined information across parents," said Jess Haines, a professor of family relations and applied nutrition, in a statement. "Our results underscore the importance of examining the influence fathers have on their children and [of developing] strategies to help fathers support the development of healthy behaviors among their children."

Haines and her colleagues gathered data using the 2011 Growing Up Today Study 2, which included more than 3,700 females and more than 2,600 males between the ages of 14 and 24. The research team assessed factors that influence the quality of the parent-child relationship and family stability, including how well the family managed daily activities, how family members fulfilled their roles, and how the family connected emotionally. They also accounted for each child’s weight, eating disorders, consumption of fast food and sugary drinks, T.V. time, physical activity, and average sleep duration.

Around 80 percent of all adolescents and young adults were from a high-functioning family. Six out of every 10 females and half of all males reported having a quality relationship with both parents. These children were less likely to suffer from eating disorders, more likely to exercise, and got more hours of sleep each night. Females from a functioning family ate less fast food and were less likely to be overweight or obese. The relationship between fathers and sons had the strongest link to weight.

"It appears the father-son parent relationship has a stronger influence on sons than the mother-daughter relationship has on young women," said Haines. "However, more research is needed to explore the mechanisms by which father-son relationship quality influences weight status in youth and to explore possible differences in these mechanisms among males and females."

Among everything that influences the parent-child relationship, work hours are essential to keeping that bond strong as the child gets older. Researchers from North Carolina State University recently set out to determine how odd shift hours, such as night and evening shifts, affect childhood behavior compared to the average 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. shift. Parents who work unconventional hours that prevent them from being home with the rest of their family tend to raise children who participate in unhealthy and delinquent behaviors. The bond between parent and child in these families is often weaker as well.  

"A high level of family dysfunction may interfere with the development of healthful behaviors due to the families' limited ability to develop routines related to eating, sleep, or activity behaviors, which can lead to excess weight gain," Haines added.

Such dysfunctions are not set in stone. Researchers from Northwestern University have shown that improving parenting and communication skills among parents and giving them better ways to help their child with stress, racism, and peer pressure will end up strengthening the parent-child relationship. These interventions can also make children healthier by improving their levels of inflammation.

Source: Horton N, Rifas-Shiman S, Haines J, et al. Family Functioning and Quality of Parent-Adolescent Relationship: Cross-Sectional Associations with Adolescent Weight-Related Behaviors and Weight Status. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity . 2016.