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Devanshi Patel


Jaimie Arona Krems


2023 SPSSI Conference:
Parents of Children with Higher Weights are Blamed and Stigmatized

Devanshi Patel, Oklahoma State University
Jaimie Arona Krems, University of California, Los Angeles

“I just think about what other people think of me as a mother… that people look at [my child] and think, ‘What does she feed him?’” (quoted in Jackson et al., 2007, p. 32).  

Courts in seven U.S. states have removed children with “obesity” from parental custody until those children could maintain “healthy-weights.” These rulings—alongside qualitative reports from parents of children with higher weights (PoCH)—suggest that PoCH might be judged by others as being bad parents. We know that, among adults, experiencing weight-related stigma can lead to severe consequences, including diminished economic and educational opportunities, and even potentially increases in weight.  

An attribution theory account of such weight stigma suggests that people attribute the cause of adults’ higher weights to them having personal “flaws”—like laziness or poor impulse control. Indeed, the more that people believe adults are responsible for their own weight problems, the more people stigmatize those adults with higher weight. (In reality, higher weight is caused by a highly complex interplay of genetics, environment, and other factors (Albuquerque, Nobrega, Manco, & Padez, 2017).)  

If people blame and stigmatize adults for their higher weights, might this same phenomenon happen for children? Likely not. Data suggest that people attribute responsibility for childhood obesity not to children themselves but rather to those children’s parents (Patel et al., 2023). And an ecological model for higher weight in childhood suggests that etiological factors such as dietary intake, physical activity, and sedentary behavior affect children’s weights (Davison & Birch, 2001). Again, to the extent that these factors are perceived to be under parental control, parents might be seen as responsible for their children’s weights—and this stigmatized when children have higher weights.  

Yet little work tests whether social perceivers genuinely stigmatize PoCH, or what might drive this phenomenon. In three experiments with U.S. participants (N=1011; two pre-registered), we tested an updated attribution theory model. We predicted and found that social perceivers attribute children’s (excess) weights to parents, and thus stigmatize those parents. Experiments 1 and 2 support this model across parent and child gender combinations. Social perceivers who saw and read about parents of children with “higher-weight” (versus “healthy-weight”) attributed greater responsibility for child weight to parents and, in turn, stigmatized those parents and viewed them as having worse parenting skills. Experiment 3 manipulated these mediating attributions of parental responsibility for child weight, revealing attenuated stigma with lesser attributions of responsibility.  


Findings are among the first to describe and explain stigma toward a large demographic (parents of children with “obesity”). Further exploration of this parental stigma has with major real-world implications, such as for family separation and in healthcare. Future work with the attribution theory account for parental stigma may additionally illuminate the psychology underlying stigma toward parents of children with other potentially stigma-evoking identities. 

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