Childhood Obesity: Illuminating the Internal Will for Change
Food as a reinforcement method may contribute to childhood obesity

Food as a reinforcement method may contribute to childhood obesity“You got an A on your test, let’s celebrate with ice cream.” Sound familiar? More children are overweight today as compared to previous generations. The childhood obesity rate has tripled since 1980, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Georgia’s statistics are quite concerning, with an alarming 37% of children ages 10-17 considered to be overweight. Consequently, children today are at greater risk of developing diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Parents who reward good behavior with junk food may unknowingly be contributing to these disturbing health statistics and the obesity epidemic in America.

It appears that one of the greatest challenges to pediatric obesity is to truly understand the underlying reasons for parents’ choices of reinforcement methods, such that they are increasingly encouraging a detrimental association between food and behavior. There are several speculations for this paradigm shift in parental strategies over the last few decades. Technological advances in our society breed a fast-paced, quick turn-around lifestyle, lending families to expect immediate outcomes. Further, the American family experiences increased stressors due to demanding work schedules for both parents, competitive prerequisites for college entry (such as demonstrating children’s active involvements in clubs, organizations, etc.), and financial pressures. Subsequently, parents tend to act upon a guilty conscience for not being able to allot the desired amount of quality time to spend with their kids, leading them to quickly acquiesce to their children’s successes in the most time and cost efficient manner, rather than by taking time to provide adaptive emotional reinforcement. This behavior is observed frequently during family therapy sessions where parents struggle with knowing the appropriate types of reinforcements to provide to their children, while maintaining a healthy balance of disciplined structure.

The long-term results of this dysfunctional interchange are that children become “victims” of classic conditioning rather than “beneficiaries” of this advantageous behavioral intervention method when applied appropriately. Children will learn not only to reward their own performance with poor food choices, but they also may learn to engage in emotional eating as a coping mechanism when confronted with life’s obstacles. These destructive behaviors can lead to overeating or binge eating behaviors to the extent that children have been failed by their mentors to learn adaptive internal mechanisms of establishing healthy boundaries and decision-making processes. This critical analysis allows us, as parents, to acknowledge that responsibility for the obesity problem lies within a microcosm of changing family dynamics, with unspoken messages being the loudest. Parents miss the mark when they perseverate on what children are served at school or at their friend’s or grandparent’s houses, out of their controlled environment. It is not what they are served to eat in an environment that is important, but it is how they learn to manage their eating behaviors.
Children can still be rewarded for their achievements and noble behavior, though with non-edible treats. Express love to your child unconditionally with smiles, hugs, or merely any activity while engaging in positive quality time. Remember that these unconditional goodies are most effective when given during pleasant times as well as during times of distress. These rewarding parent-child exchanges plant the seeds for healthy interpersonal attachments, which will inadvertently inspire children to spark their intrinsic motivation and internal will (rather than being manipulated by external rewards) to achieve their potential and take responsibility for choosing fruitful– not sickeningly sweet– growth experiences. As Anne Frank stated, “Parents can only give good advice or put them [children] on the right paths, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.”