Study links communication style to adolescent weight loss

Changes in communication between families and children could result in more success among children trying to lose weight, according to recent findings by University researchers.

The study divided adolescents into two groups, with one group containing parents who were heavily communicating with their children about the weight loss program and the other group maintaining little communication between parents and children regarding their weight loss, said Elissa Jelalian, associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior.

“We expected that the teens whose parents were more involved would lose more weight, but they didn’t,” Jelalian said.

The researchers found that styles of communication, rather than the amount of communication, had the best results, said Mary Beth McCullough, a clinical psychology intern at the University. She noted that at all levels of parental-child involvement, there were “no differences in terms of communication styles.”

“Some parents were very critical,” Jelalian said. The overall population of parents was pretty balanced, she added, noting that it would have been interesting to recruit even more parents who were high in criticism.

The study, published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology, was 16 weeks long, and the children would meet with the researchers for an hour every week, Jelalian said. In the group with less parental involvement, the researchers only met with the parents before and after the study, she added.

There are five areas that define communication style, McCullough said. Firstly, the “tone” of communication describes whether parents approach their children in a  warm or hostile manner. The “process” indicates how much collaboration and problem solving is done. The “clarity” depends on how direct the communication is. The last two areas are the “time” spent talking and the “power” of the person in control of the conversation.

“This work suggests that parent-teen communication around weight loss is an important dynamic that needs to be considered when it comes to adolescent weight loss interventions  and perhaps for many more health conditions,” wrote Suzannah Creech, an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior who was not involved in the study, in an email to The Herald.

The mental states of children also have to be considered when studying communication, wrote Abigail Marcaccio, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior who was not involved in the study, in an email to The Herald.  “I would caution readers not to conclude that it is helpful to increase criticism of adolescents who are trying to lose weight.”

In the increased parental involvement group, “parents were asked to set their own goals regarding to weight,” Jelalian said.

“Sometimes parents weren’t following guidelines,” she noted, adding that this in turn led to children not wanting to follow the rules to lose weight either.

This study tackles an area of psychology research that hasn’t received a lot of attention yet, McCullough said.

“We really don’t know a lot about interventions by families,” McCullough said, adding that this is why she got involved with this study.

Certain factors are known about these interventions, but the impact is still elusive, she added. There are
“gaps in research.”

“We need more research that examines and bolsters the resources of family and intimate relationships on health,” Creech wrote, “and this study is an outstanding sample of how to do that.”

“It struck me that while adolescents are more independent than younger kids, their parents still have an influence,” Jelalian said.

Jelalian is working on a new study right now that is trying to figure out how adolescents who lost weight were able to accomplish their goals and has noticed that the “common theme” in teens’ ability to reach a healthier size has been that they are self-motivated.

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Copyright 2017