Psychological Stress and Children's Coping Behaviors: Choices among Food, Physical Activity, and Television
Balantekin, Katherine N.
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Chronic stress precedes weight gain in both children and adults. A better understanding of the ways in which children choose to cope with stress is important in that the primary coping behaviors of children, eating, distracting sedentary behaviors, and exercise, can have major influences on adiposity. Purpose: To determine the three primary stress coping behaviors of children and to determine individual difference factors that moderate which behaviors children choose to cope with stress. Methods: 30 children (8-12 y) completed a 5-min speech stressor on one day and read children's magazines on another day. Children then completed a 25 min free-choice period to eat their preferred comfort food, watch their preferred television show, and engage in their preferred physical activity. The time spent in each behavior was recorded, and the amount of food consumed was weighed. Analytic Procedures: Chi square analyses were used to test the distribution of first choice behaviors. ANOVA models were used to determine time spent in coping behaviors and multiple linear regression models were used to test whether dietary restraint or the usual amount of engaging in a behavior would moderate changes in the behavioral choice after stress. Results: There were no differences in time spent watching television, eating, or exercising between the control and stress conditions. The distribution of first behavioral choice did not change across stress and control days. Children spent more (p < 0.0001) time watching TV than eating or exercising, with no (p≥ 0.85) difference in time spent eating or exercising. There was no difference in mean time spent in behaviors across control and stress days. Rather, changes in time spent engaging in coping behaviors were dependent on individual difference factors and the magnitude of stress reactivity. Changes in the amount of time spent eating (p < 0.01) and energy consumed (p < 0.008) were dependent on the interaction between dietary restraint and stress reactivity. Children higher for restraint and higher for stress reactivity were predicted to increase their time spent eating by 206 seconds and consume 264 more calories. Changes in the time spent watching TV (p < 0.05) were dependent on the interaction between stress reactivity and usual TV time. Children who were higher in usual TV time and stress reactivity were predicted to increase their TV time by 94 seconds. Conclusion: When stressed, children who are high in dietary restraint will increase their energy intake, and children who normally watch greater TV will increase their TV time. Both of these behaviors would contribute to a child's risk for becoming obese.