Parents often worry about their children's emotional well-being when going through a divorce, but new research suggests they should be concerned for their physical health, too. A study published in the online journal BMJ Open found that children of divorced parents were more likely to be overweight or obese.
The researchers analyzed 3,166 third-graders, who were about 8 years old, by measuring their height, weight and waist circumference and collecting parental marital status. Researchers found that the prevalence of being generally overweight was 54 percent higher among children of divorced parents, compared with children of married parents. The prevalence of abdominal obesity was 89 percent higher among children of divorce. Children of parents who were never married had numbers similar to those of the children of married parents.
The study's authors warn that the results should be interpreted with caution. But the article speculates about how the changing structure of daily life during divorce can affect children. For example, the children may be left worse off financially, and emotional stress could affect eating behavior and physical activity levels.
Divorce does not need to be traumatic. Although not involved in this particular study, Bruce Ecker, a psychologist and faculty member at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology, says, "Research literature is consistent in indicating that the way parents interact following a divorce is a stronger predictor of the child's outcome then the divorce itself."
When dealing with divorce, it may be helpful for parents to work collaboratively, particularly about matters directly related to the children. For example, Ecker recommends parents take a team approach by working with a pediatrician and nutritionist to set reasonable goals to get healthy. "Engage the child in a plan about how to reduce weight so that it doesn't become embedded in a conflict," he says.
When dealing with major life events, parents must keep the lines of communication open. Instead of creating extra conflict by focusing on weight gain, encourage children to make healthy food choices and involve them in fun physical activities.