Parental Monitoring Can Stop Impulsive Children From Overeating

That moment when part of you wants another chocolate chip cookie and part of you knows it’s probably time to call it quits.

One one hand: that smooth chocolate and that soft cookie dough.

On the other hand: your health.

So what determines whether you indulge a little more or do the responsible thing and put the lid back on the cookie jar? There are a lot of factors, including how you might be feeling that particular day, but one that psychologists have proposed is how impulsive you are.

That is, if you’re someone who tends to act without thinking, you’re probably more likely to give in to temptation, whereas if you’re someone who tends to weigh out your actions in advance, that’ll predispose you to saying no to the cookie.

Even in children, individual differences in impulsivity are apparent, and these differences have real consequences for eating habits. A 2013 study found that how children perform on a delayed gratification task predicts their body mass index (BMI) 30 years later.

With this connection between impulsivity and eating habits in mind, researchers from University of Birmingham decided to look at how parental monitoring fits into the equation – specifically, whether parents can play a role in helping impulsive children develop healthier eating habits.

The researchers focused on three kinds of impulsivity:

  • Motor impulsivity: the tendency to act without thinking
  • Delay of gratification: the ability to postpone rewards
  • Inhibitory control: the ability to regulate one’s behavior

They then measured weight and eating behavior in a group of 95 children between the ages of 2 and 4, looking for a link with impulsivity. They found that impulsive children did tend to eat more and that girls high in motor impulsivity in particular were heavier overall.

Importantly, though, parental monitoring also played a big role in how much the children ate. Impulsive children who were monitored by their parents tended to eat more like typical children while impulsive children who were left to their own devices were the ones with the most uninhibited eating behavior.

In other words, parents can offset some of the downsides of impulsivity by taking an active role in shaping their children’s eating habits. Although being impulsive puts children at higher risk for overeating, parental monitoring can have a protective effect.

So none of that helps you resolve your dilemma with the chocolate chip cookie, but if it’s Junior who’s contemplating “to eat or not to eat” vis-a-vis baked goods, the solution might be for mom or dad to ditch the cookie jar for a lettuce dispenser.