Divorce and Childhood Obesity

Childhood obesity can be a major family issue, leading to health complications and mental distress. As such, it is important to understand how this condition may affect the parental rights of those raising children with obesity. Studies have shown that parents of obese children are more likely to experience custody disagreements than parents without obesity, as courts could see their children’s weight as an indication of neglect or lack of care. In addition, researchers at the London School of Economics and Political Science found that children of divorced parents are more likely to be overweight.

What Health Risks Result from Childhood Obesity?

September is National Childhood Obesity Month.  According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), approximately 19% of children (about 1 in 5) in the United States are considered obese.  Obesity puts children at an increased risk for serious health conditions, including:

  1. Asthma;
  2. Sleep apnea;
  3. Type 2 diabetes; and
  4. Heart disease.

The Risk of Obesity Is Greater for Children of Divorced Households

According to a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the risk of childhood obesity is directly related to parent-perceived stress.  A European study also found that children in divorced households are twice as likely to suffer from obesity. The extensive study of children with divorced parents revealed that these individuals were more likely to gain weight and become overweight or obese within 36 months of parental separation. The findings suggest that children of divorced households may face an increased risk of developing health issues, due to economic and non-economic factors, such as a lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables, limited financial resources for engaging in physical activities, and emotional troubles that can lead to unhealthy eating habits. To better support this vulnerable population, researchers call for improved health care to aid children in making positive lifestyle choices following a parental split.

Can Childhood Obesity Threaten a Parent’s Custody Rights?

Due to the potential health consequences that stem from childhood obesity, a parent who neglects to take steps toward preventing obesity may be vulnerable to child custody litigation.  Several recent child custody cases ultimately turned on the issue of childhood obesity.

Parents should be aware of potential conflicts between medical and legal guidelines when deciding on treatment options. For example, if one parent proposes a weight loss plan while the other opposes it, these issues must be addressed and resolved before they reach a court of law. Furthermore, parents must practice open communication about the issue and take responsibility for contributing to (or preventing) their child’s obesity.

Under Tennessee law, child custody is determined based on the child’s best interests.  When evaluating the child’s best interests, a Florida court may consider the child’s health and any parenting behavior that is harmful to the child’s health.  Thus, if one parent actively prevents obesity while the other parent unwittingly promotes it, a court may rely on this fact and award sole custody to the more health-conscious parent.

Accordingly, divorced parents who share joint custody over a child must cooperate with each other to plan a stable and routine diet and exercise regimen for their child.  Parents must resist the urge to “buy” their child’s love with candy, junk food, and desserts.  Otherwise, a non-cooperating parent could face losing their child in an intense custody battle.

4 Steps Divorced Parents Can Take to Prevent Childhood Obesity

A poor diet and lack of physical activity are the main culprits behind childhood obesity.  Therefore, parents must take an active role in preventing obesity for their children.  But maintaining a stable diet and exercise routine can be difficult for divorced parents sharing custody.  Thus, to promote healthy growth in your child, a shared parenting plan should take the following steps:

  1. Monitor your child’s growth.  Parents should become familiar with their child’s height-to-weight ratio (body mass index or BMI). Use the CDC’s Child and Teen BMI Calculator to monitor for potential weight problems.
  2. Emphasize fruits and vegetables.  Parents can help craft their children’s diet by replacing fatty and sugary foods with fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of high-nutrient, low-calorie food.
  3. Promote physical exercise.  Parents can foster their children’s natural tendencies for play by enrolling them in sports or other age-appropriate physical activities.
  4. Coordination and specialization.  Parents must make their child’s health a priority.  Divorced parents must communicate openly about their child’s health and potential weight issues.  Parents may want to consider a specialized division of labor.  For example, one parent may be in charge of the child’s diet, while the other parent is in charge of exercise.  Parents must then respect the other parent’s decisions within their agreed-upon role.

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