Children 10–18 years

Tune into your parenting style for better child health

family at the marketThe food that children eat is influenced by TV advertising, peer pressure and their likes and dislikes but by far the greatest influence is the food that their parents choose for them at the supermarket

No matter how much the child may nag for the latest TV snack or reject, out of hand, more basic food items, it is the parent who ultimately makes the food choice and parts with the dollars.

With these dollars parents are not only buying food for their children but, some would argue, are influencing their growth, health and development, and possibly their educational outcomes. With these dollars they may also be demonstrating their preferred parenting style.

Parenting Styles

In her book “Kids are Worth it” Barbara Coloroso defines three parenting styles: The Brickwall, The Jellyfish and the Backbone parent. The extremes of these styles are described below.

The Brickwall parent

The parent using this style has absolute authority, enforces order, and always wins. Their families live by a strict litany of rules-“thou shalt” and “shall not” and “don’t you dare”. Punctuality, cleanliness and order are enforced and attempts are made to break the child’s will and spirit with fear and punishment. Love is highly conditional on “pleasing”. Children are taught what to think, not how to think.

The Jelly fish parent

Often the parent using this style had a Brickwall parent themselves and were taught what, how, where and when to speak, act, react, not how to think. So when it comes time to develop a backbone structure, this parent does not know how. There are no guidelines, principles, structures, or rules in this family. Mini-lectures, put-downs, second chances and bribes are common place. Confusion is common as is inconsistency.

Jellyfish parents are often oblivious to major family problems. Their children are easily led by their peers and have a risk of sexual promiscuity, drug abuse and suicide as they live in a permissive, laissez-faire atmosphere.

The Backbone parent

The parent who adopts this style of parenting endeavours to balance a sense of self and community in all that they do. Democracy is learned through experience and by living in an environment encouraging creative, constructive and responsible activities.

Backbone parents develop for their children a network of support by giving their children six critical messages each day: I believe in you; I trust you; I know you can handle life situations; you are listened to; you are cared for; you are important to me.

Rules are simple and clearly stated. Backbone parents teach their children consequences of irresponsible behaviour and how to think. Love is unconditional.

These children are taught what they have done wrong, are given ownership of the problem and are offered a way to solve the problems with their dignity left intact. Mistakes are valued as learning opportunities for the child.

Parenting styles and food

Parenting styles, such as those described, may also affect the type of foods a parent may select for their family and the manner in which children learn to eat.

  • Brickwall parents determine what, when, how much and what their child will eat. Rigid rules are enforced “you will sit there all night and eat your tea”…Mealtime is not a celebration. Control issues around food may reach crisis point in the teen years when the teen shuts her/his mouth, goes instead on fast-food binges or may escape into anorexia.
  • Jelly fish parents have no mealtime structure and little concern for the value, quality and amounts of food their children eat. Jellyfish parents often use food as a way of coping with emotional turmoil. A child cries and immediately is given a biscuit. Mum may eat when sad, Dad drinks more beer when he loses his job. Understandably  son or daughter opens a packet of chocolate biscuits after school, sad because their best friends wouldn’t  “hangout” with them today.
    In Jellyfish families, children learn to fend for themselves. They often  develop poor nutritional habits, living mostly on fast food, sweets and junk foods. They learn to keep thoughts to themselves because there is no forum in which to express themselves in the family.
  • Backbone parents provide a healthy and flexible structure for mealtimes. Meals are a celebration, a chance to share the events of the day and also a time to teach children about nutrition, food preparation, manners and conversation. There are disagreements, but these are handled in a framework of reason and dialogue.
    Mealtimes offer choices, not long menus. “Do you want half a sandwich or a whole one”? If the child orders a whole and only eats half, the remaining portion goes into the fridge as a snack should they get hungry before the next meal.
    Backbone parents have a variety of good foods in the home and eat these foods themselves. They teach children about the food they are eating and how to prepare nutritious snacks, how to shop and cook. Even very young children can be encouraged to help prepare the food or set the table.

Determinants of children’s eating behaviour

  • Although Coloroso’s theories may be helpful it is important to recognise that patenting styles are influenced by a number of external factors such as finances, job security, family crisis, as well as a parents own sense of self ( e.g.knowledge, confidence, coping strategies and feelings of self esteem).
    Therefore it is quite common for parents to oscillate between all three types of parenting before settling on a style (or blend) that suits them most of the time.
  • Nutrition research does support the view that over control, restriction, pressure to eat and a promise of rewards have negative effects on the foods that children will accept.
  • Children do model adult behaviour. Which means that parents own food preferences, eating behaviour and views of body image impact on a child’s development. This can  provide parents with a good opportunity to model  eating and exercise behaviours that support good health for their family and prevent the development of diet-related diseases.
  • Irrespective of the parent style that a parent chooses to adopt the most important thing is to be able to recognise when the parenting style they have chosen is not working, admit to their child when they have made a mistake, change tack, and if necessary seek professional help.
  • For more information read’s Lea’s articles:
    Healthy ideas for family takeaway meals
    Playtime helps combat childhood obesity
    Teach your child to cook for better health
    Obesity problems may start in the womb
    Who controls feeding- the mother or the child?

If you would like help to discuss the way you or your family eats, so that you can maximise the nutritional benefit of the food dollars and effort you expend feeding your family, then do contact us today.


Coloroso B. Kids are worth it. Harper Collins USA
Scaglioni S, Arrizza C, Vecchie F, Tedeschi S. Determinants of children’s eating behaviour Am J Clin Nutr 2011 doi:10.3945/ajcn.110.001685

About the author View all

Lea Stening

Lea is one of New Zealand’s leading paediatric dietitians and also specialises in Sports Nutrition. She has specialised in Paediatric Nutrition for 31 years and in 1985 was the first paediatric dietitian to enter private practice in New Zealand. Lea helps families through her private consultations, public lectures, newspaper and magazine articles as well as television and radio interviews. Read more »

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