Children's Perceptions of Maternal Weight-Related Attitudes and Behaviors and Relationship to Child's Self-Esteem and Body Image

Lauren Sowers
Esther Higginbottom
Heather Rapp

Huntington University


The purpose of this study was to research the correlation between daughters' accounts of mothers' weight-related behaviors and attitudes, such as dieting, scale-checking, and comments about self, and the effects that these behaviors have on their daughters. The research was conducted by looking into parent-child relationships, how they communicate, and how the daughters perceive their mother's views of self through use of a survey created on Survey Monkey. The subjects were 171 female students, ages 18-25, from a small Christian, liberal arts school in Indiana, and they received the survey through their university email. There was no significant relationship found between self-esteem and maternal weight-related attitudes and behaviors.


In her article, Kasey Edwards (2013) wrote about how her mother's self-critiques significantly changed Kasey's perception of beauty. She cited a very specific memory as a seven-year-old girl when her mother, beautifully dressed up for a party, said to her:  "Look at you, so thin, beautiful and lovely. And look at me, fat, ugly and horrible." Hearing her mother call herself fat and ugly was the first thing that led to a lifelong change in the perception of her own body image and what it meant to be beautiful. In this study, the present researchers are interested in exploring this correlation between a parent's model of self-esteem and their children's self-esteem (Edwards, 2013).

Having low self-esteem and body image can lead to greater health issues, such as eating disorders or major depression. Knowing any preventable causes of low self-esteem and body image are extremely important for the health and well-being of children and adolescents. Exploring the link between the weight-related attitudes and behaviors of maternal figures could help parents to know how to properly display weight-related attitudes to their children. This awareness could potentially lessen the prevalence of poor body-image and self-esteem and resultant eating disorders in our society.

Parent-Child Relationships

Much research has been conducted on the correlation between parent-child relationships and child's or adolescent's self-esteem. Having a relationship that is perceived to be healthy and open with one or both parents has been shown to positively predict self-esteem in adolescents (Bulanda & Majumdar, 2009). It has also been found that unconditional positive regard from a parent contributes modestly to self-esteem in adolescence and early adulthood, and that secure adolescent attachment to parents is a greater predictor of self-esteem than their attachment to peers (Paterson, Pryor, & Field, 1995; Roberts & Bengtson, 1993).

Bush (2000) found that adolescents whose parents granted them autonomy had higher self-esteem, perhaps suggesting a need for fostering potential in a child rather than managing their independence in order to help them thrive. Parents who have an open conversation style with their children, meaning that parents are open to their children talking with them on any subject, who reference positive emotions and evaluations, and who offer more detailed explanations regarding conversations of past negative and positive emotions tend to have children with higher self-esteem (Reese, Bird, & Tripp, 2007). It has also been found that individuals with eating disorders and poor body-image stereotypically grew up in homes with authoritarian parenting styles during the first sixteen years of life (Jáuregui Lobera, Bolaños Rios, & Garrido Casals, 2011).


Communication, especially between parent and child, has been shown to predict the self-esteem in adolescents. For a family to function well, effective communication must be present in both vocal and non-vocal forms while involving sensitivity and empathy when responding to the ideas and feelings of others (Jackson, Bijstra, Oostra, & Bosma, 1998). "Children of parents who lack sensitivity are at higher risk for emotional problems" (Schor, Stidley, & Malspeis, 1995, p. 211). Haines, Neumark-Sztainer, Hannan, and Robinson-Obrien (2008) showed that a child's weight-related attitudes and behaviors are associated with parental weight-related behaviors such as constant weighing, talking negatively about one's weight, or parents going on crash diets. For example, research has also found that being teased regarding weight and body, as well as receiving hurtful weight-related comments from family members or a significant other, is associated with disordered eating behaviors in adolescents (Eisenberg, Berge, Fulkerson, & Neumark-Sztainer, 2010).

Gender Differences

Girls responsible for social maintenance have a higher tendency, through both family and cultural influences, to develop negative body image, disordered eating behaviors, and low self-esteem. Rodgers, Faure, and Chabrol (2009) found in a study of French male and female adolescents that there were far more comments from mothers to daughters regarding their value in a superficial sense, as well as comments regarding the mother's own weight and shape, while there were considerably less comments from mothers to sons. In the same study, it was found that in both France and the US, females are about 10 percent more likely than males to report dissatisfaction with their body shape and are 15-22 percent more likely to report disordered eating behaviors. Mothers' perceived emphasis on both their own and their daughter's weight and shape was found to be a predictor of negative body image and drive for thinness, while the same correlation was found to be negative between fathers and sons, which means that body emphasis by the father lowers the son's drive for thinness (Rodgers, Faure, and Chabrol, 2009).


One important factor in weight-related behavior communication is that these behaviors may not be perceived the same way by parent and child. In a study conducted by Haines et al. (2008), both the parent's and child's perception of the parent's weight-related behaviors were measured and it was found that children were more perceptive of the subtleties of parental messages. This is likely due to the high level of economic and emotional dependence a child has on his or her parents. However, both reports were related to children's resulting weight-related behaviors, with the child's report of parent behavior having a stronger association than the parent's (Haines et al., 2008). Pre-teen children with unstable self-esteem reported that they perceived their mothers' and fathers' communication styles to be more critical and controlling and less positive than did those with stable self-esteem (Kernis, Brown, & Brody, 2000). It was also found that there was a correlation between children with behavior problems and parents who do not empathize with their children (Schor et al., 1995).


The purpose of this study was to research the correlation between daughters' accounts of mothers' weight-related behaviors and attitudes, such as dieting, scale-checking, and comments about self, and the effects that these behaviors have on their daughters. The hypothesis of this study is that there will be a positive correlation between the weight-related attitudes and behaviors, i.e. scale checking, dieting, comments about weight, of maternal figures and the body-image and self-esteem of their daughters.


For this study, a link of our survey was sent to 515 undergraduate female students from a small Christian university in Indiana, using their school email addresses.  There were 171 respondents aged 18-24, which was a response rate of 33 percent. The survey consisted of the already established Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale, which consisted of ten self-esteem related questions (Rosenberg, 1965), and nine added questions to gauge the frequency of observable negative weight-related attitudes and behaviors as well as the participant's own body image (Youfa, 2009). These scales asked respondents to agree or disagree with statements such as "I wish I could have more respect for myself." and "Your mother frequently made negative comments about her weight." A sample of the survey instrument is found in Appendix A.

We sent this email in early March 2014, with a second reminder email two weeks later. The incentive to take the survey was to be entered into a drawing for one of two $15 gift cards.


The results for the Rosenberg self-esteem scale were compared with our maternal weight-related behaviors scale using the Pearson r correlation coefficient. All questions used a Likert scale with answers valued from 1 to 4 or 5. The correlation was not found to be significant (r = -.111, p = .159). However, we did ask the question "Do you feel that your mother's weight-related attitudes and behaviors (whether positive or negative) affected your self-esteem and body image?" and 40.4 percent of participants chose "True" or "Somewhat true" as their response.


We found no significant correlation between the weight-related attitudes and behaviors of mothers and the self-esteem and body image of their daughters in the student population that was surveyed in this study. However, there could still be a correlation in self-esteem at a younger age, before the daughter has left home. A similar study conducted at a younger age when mothers are still present and their messages are more influential or a longitudinal study using both the mothers and their daughters as participants could produce different results.

There were several challenges in conducting this study. We only conducted our research with college students, and the population sample came from a university campus that is notoriously supportive; therefore, any previous poor self-esteem issues may have been resolved shortly after the participants entered college. Asking our participants to remember their experiences with their mothers likely caused inconsistencies in data because of the imprecise nature of memory. We also did not explore any other factors such as the influence of paternal figures on body image, personality traits such as introversion and extroversion, or the influences of other factors such as peers or the media. The ideal way to research this topic would be a longitudinal study analyzing maternal weight-related behaviors and daughters' self-esteem and body image across childhood and adolescence.


Bulanda, R., & Majumdar, D. (2009). Perceived parent–child relations and adolescent self-esteem. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 18(2), 203-212. doi:10.1007/s10826-008-9220-3

Bush, K. (2000). Separatedness and connectedness in the parent–adolescent relationship as predictors of adolescent self-esteem in US and Chinese samples. Marriage and Family Review, 30(1-2), 153-178. doi:10.1300/J002v30n01_10

Edwards, K. (2013, June 10). To the mom who taught me everything: A body image breakthrough [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.beautyredefined.net/to-the-     mom-who-taught-me-everything-a-body-image-breakthrough/

Eisenberg, M., Berge, J., Fulkerson, J., & Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2012). Associations between hurtful weight-related comments by family and significant other and the development of disordered eating behaviors in young adults. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 35(5), 500-508. doi:10.1007/s10865-011-9378-9

Haines, J., Neumark-Sztainer, D., Hannan, P., & Robinson-O'Brien, R. (2008). Child versus parent report of parental influences on children's weight-related attitudes and behaviors.      Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 33(7), 783-788. doi:10.1093/jpepsy/jsn016doi:10.1002/jclp.20526

Jackson, S., Bijstra, J., Oostra, L., & Bosma, H. (1998). Adolescents' perceptions of communication with parents relative to specific aspects of relationships with parents and personal development. Journal of Adolescence, 21(3), 305-322. doi:10.1006/jado.1998.0155

Jáuregui Lobera, I., Bolaños Rios, P., & Garrido Casals, O. O. (2011). Parenting styles and eating disorders. Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing, 18(8), 728-735. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2850.2011.01723.x

Kernis, M. H., Brown, A. C., & Brody, G. H. (2000). Fragile self-esteem in children and its associations with perceived patterns of parent-child communication. Journal of Personality, 68(2), 225-252.  doi:10.1111/1467-6494.00096

Paterson, J., Pryor, J., & Field, J. (1995). Adolescent attachment to parents and friends in relation to aspects of self-esteem. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 24(3), 365-376. doi:10.1007/BF01537602

Reese, E., Bird, A., & Tripp, G. (2007). Children's self-esteem and moral self: Links to parent–child conversations regarding emotion. Social Development, 16(3), 460-478. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9507.2007.00393.x

Roberts, R. L., & Bengtson, V. L. (1993). Relationships with parents, self-esteem, and psychological well-being in young adulthood. Social Psychology Quarterly, 56(4), 263-277. doi:10.2307/2786663

Rodgers, R., Faure, K., & Chabrol, H. (2009). Gender differences in parental influences on adolescent body dissatisfaction and disordered eating. Sex Roles, 61(11/12), 837-849. doi:10.1007/s11199-009-9690-9

Rosenberg, M. (1965). Rosenberg self-esteem scale. Retrieved from http://www.fetzer.org/sites/default/files/images/stories/pdf/selfmeasures/Self_Measures_for_Love_and_Compassion_Research_SELF-ESTEEM.pdf

Schor, E. L., Stidley, C. A., & Malspeis, S. (1995). Behavioral correlates of differences between a child's assessment and the parents' assessment of the child's self-esteem. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 16(4), 211-219. doi:10.1097/00004703-199508000-00001

Youfa, W., Huifang, L., & Xiaoli, C. (2009). Measured body mass index, body weight perception, dissatisfaction and control practices in urban, low-income African American adolescents. BMC Public Health, 91-12. doi:10.1186/1471-2458-9-183

Appendix A

Rosenberg Self-Esteem Survey

Below is a list of statements dealing with your general feelings about yourself. Please indicate how strongly you agree or disagree with each statement.

  1. On the whole, I am satisfied with myself.
  2. At times I think I am no good at all.
  3. I feel that I have a number of good qualities.
  4. I am able to do things as well as most other people.
  5. I feel I do not have much to be proud of.
  6. I certainly feel useless at times.
  7. I feel that I'm a person of worth, at least on an equal plane with others.
  8. I wish I could have more respect for myself.
  9. All in all, I am inclined to feel that I am a failure.
  10. I take a positive attitude toward myself.

Weight-Related Attitudes and Behaviors Scale

Answer the following questions based on the memories you have of your mother (Or strongest maternal figure) during your child and pre-teen years.

  1. Your mother frequently checked the scale or displayed other behaviors that indicated she was unhappy with her size or weight.
  2. Your mother frequently made negative comments about her appearance (hair, face, clothes, etc.).
  3. Your mother placed a high importance on her physical appearance.
  4. Your mother frequently mentioned going on crash diets.
  5. Your mother frequently tried to restrict her caloric intake.
  6. Your mother placed high value in her appearance or size.

Give the most accurate response to the following questions.

  1. How would you describe your body weight?
  2. I feel bad about myself because of my weight.
  3. I feel that my mother's weight-related behaviors (whether negative or positive) affected my self-esteem in relation to my body image.



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