Father and Son

Parental rejection may be an important catalyst for emotional eating during childhood – possibly more so than peer rejection.

That’s according to a new study from psychologists at Ghent University in Belgium. In the study, 55 children between the ages of 11 and 15 kept daily diaries for a week, reporting on their eating habits and interpersonal relationships.

Analyzing these reports, the researchers were especially interested in how the children’s experience of rejection would relate to their emotional eating from one day to the next. They found that the children were significantly more likely to engage in emotional eating on days when they experienced more parental rejection.

By contrast, whether the children experienced peer rejection was only weakly related to how likely they were to engage in emotional eating on a given day. Peer rejection still appeared to influence emotional eating a little, but not as much as parental rejection.

This result fits with previous work suggesting that children’s relationship with their parents influences how those children approach eating. For example, earlier research from researchers at Ghent University found that positive parenting tended to protect obese children from experiencing symptoms of eating disorders.

And other research has tied parental rejection to a whole range of mental health conditions. Research published earlier this month, for instance, found that adults with schizophrenia and adults with social anxiety both tend to recall more parental rejection on average. Of course, since this study involved asking adults about their recollections of their childhoods, it’s unclear what the cause-and-effect is behind the results: to what extent did these adults experience more parental rejection as children, and to what extent did they simply remember more parental rejection as adults?

In any case, though, there seems to be a strong link between parental rejection and emotional eating – and, more generally, between parental rejection and all kinds of mental health disorders. That indicates that focusing on parent-child relationships could be a key improving mental health.

Image: Flickr/Bindaas Madhavi