At some point in every child’s life, when faced with a problem or dilemma, it's natural to reach for the easiest scapegoat and blame their parents for their problems. Now it seems, much to the chagrin of caregivers everywhere, that when it comes to childhood weight issues and obesity, these claims may not be as baseless as Mom and Dad would like to believe.

Research has revealed that parents can play a significant role in influencing their children’s body image when they lead by example. In other words, when Mom and Dad maintain a healthy body weight through proper nutrition and fitness, their children tend to follow in their footsteps. On the flip side of this equation, when parents are unhealthy and overweight, their children stand a greater chance of becoming overweight and staying that way into their teens.

A new study has found that when healthy messages regarding body weight and diet are projected by parents, children tend to embrace this message, which can be conveyed both directly and indirectly. The findings, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, resulted from a survey of over one hundred overweight adolescents (mostly females between the ages of 12 to 20 years) and their parents.

By measuring the psychosocial components of the families (which include depression, self-esteem and body image) researchers found the parental levels of satisfaction in these areas influenced how the children felt about themselves, and thus influenced the child's behavior patterns. An important component of a healthy lifestyle was the family dynamic, or how everyone got along. The implication is that the emotional environment at home matters, especially in terms of healthy body weight in children.

In a related study, researchers found that parents who are overweight are more likely to have heavy children, who can then grow up into overweight teenagers. The influence of parental obesity was particularly significant in the first five years of a child’s life.

Observing nearly 3000 children, researchers took body mass index (BMI) readings at the age of 5 and again at the age of 14 and recorded such factors as birthweight, duration of breastfeeding, parental income and education, and maternal depression. Children who were overweight at the age of 5 were heavy as babies. Furthermore, if the child was overweight at the age of 5, they were more likely to remain fat by the age of 14. Interestingly, overweight toddler girls were more likely to return to a healthy weight by age 14 than overweight toddler boys.

The findings, published in the International Journal of Obesity, imply that in many instances, the weight status of a teenager might very well be determined by their weight as infants and toddlers, and this situation is directly related to parental involvement. In other words, prevention of childhood obesity begins at an early age, when parents have the most influence, either by the food choices they give their children, or the examples they set in their own lives.

While it may not be constructive to lay all of the blame for these health issues on the parents, there is no denying that in the early years of a child’s life, Mom and Dad do play a significant role what their kids eat and by extension, the maintenance of a healthy body weight. Along these lines, one of the most effective ways to encourage a healthy lifestyle is to lead by example.

And like it or not, that is where Mom and Dad are in the driver’s seat.