Parents may want to monitor their stress levels not only for their health but their children’s health. Those who perceive themselves with high levels of stress are more likely to have kids with higher body mass indexes (BMIs) leading to obesity, according to a recent study.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years, with more than one-third classified as overweight or obese in the U.S. The disease can have detrimental consequences on the physical and mental health of kids, prompting researchers to find the root causes of obesity.

A parent’s stress is suggested to be a possible risk factor for childhood obesity. The presence of stress in a person’s life could increase appetite and motivation, especially the motivation to eat due to the release of the hormone cortisol, says the Harvard Medical School. High cortisol levels with high insulin levels could lead to the increased intake of high-fat and sugary foods during times of stress. Parents may be inclined to resort to such foods as it releases the overall stress of household work because less time is needed for food preparation. In turn, their children will be exposed to these foods and experience excess weight.

Publishing in the journal Pediatric Obesity, researchers examined the impact of parental psychological stress on the BMI in pre-adolescent children over four years of follow-up. About 4,000 children between the ages of 5 and 10 from the Children’s Health Study, were used as the sample size in the study.

Parental stress was examined at the initial time of the study before the researchers attained the children’s BMI at age 10 and the changes across annual measures of BMI during the four year follow-up. A questionnaire was given to the parents as a means to measure their perceived psychological stress by asking questions, such as how often in the last month they were able or unable to control important things in their life and whether things were going their way or their difficulties were piling up so high they could not overcome them.

The findings of the St. Michael’s Hospital study revealed children with parents who had higher levels of stress tended to have higher BMI levels. These children’s BMI levels were approximately two percent greater than the levels of children without highly stressed parents. Adolescents who had parents dealing with higher stress levels were reported to gain weight at a seven percent higher rate than the children with parents who showed relatively low stress levels.

In addition, half of the children followed in the study were Hispanic. The researchers found the effects of stress on their BMI was greater than children of other ethnic backgrounds. However, future research should be considered for reasons as to why Hispanic children are more vulnerable to parental stress. Differences in how Hispanic parents respond to stress or how their children perceive stressors or cope with stress should also be evaluated, the researchers wrote.

Despite these findings, the researchers could not determine a cause-and-effect relationship but suggest the potential dangers parental stress can have on childhood development.

"Childhood is a time when we develop inter-connected habits related to how we deal with stress, how we eat, and how active we are," said Dr. Ketan Shankardass, lead author of the study, a social epidemiologist with the hospital's Center for Research on Inner City Health, and assistant professor in psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University, Medical Xpress reports. "It's a time when we might be doing irreversible damage or damage that is very hard to change later."

While the figures in the study may appear low, they do carry significance since they are occurring in children whose bodies, eating, and exercise habits are still in the development stages. If these kids continue to experience an increase in BMI and weight gain, this could lead to obesity and serious health issues.

Parents who may experience higher levels of stress could help their children’s health by adopting stress-coping techniques by increasing physical activity in the household and reducing unhealthy food habits. Dr. Shankardass believes parental stress could create more stress for their kids who may cope by eating more or exercising less, or even lead to biological changes that lead to excess weight.

Whether a parent is a working parent, a single parent, or a married parent, mother or father, parent of one child or several children, stress will be present in many situations. It is how the parent copes with stress that helps lead to a healthier environment for them and their children.

For more tips on how to reduce parental stress, click here.


Berhane K, Gilliland F, Jerrett M et al. Parental stress increases body mass index trajectory in pre-adolescents. Pediatric Obesity. 2013.