When a child eats to “feed” a feeling (sadness, happiness, worry, frustration, boredom, etc.) instead of to relieve hunger, they are in the midst of “emotional eating.” It is natural for eating and emotions to become connected to a certain degree, but if emotions prompt a child to make poor food choices, or eat too much or too little, long-lasting problems can ensue.
Teach kids how to talk about feeling
So what can parents do if they notice their child consistently eating to soothe feeling states? First, try taking a backdoor approach by helping the child learn to recognize, name, and cope with difficult emotions in more adaptive ways. Take out some library books aimed at feelings and use everyday moments to reflect what you observe about your child’s feeling states. Reflect on what you observe in your child’s social interactions to increase his/her awareness of interpersonal relationships and the feelings they spark. Children with greater awareness of their internal states are less likely to eat for reasons other than hunger, and less likely to develop compulsive eating habits.
Take close look: What’s your family eating culture? How are you dealing with emotions as a family?
Next, take a close look at your family system by asking these questions: 1) Is food often turned to as a source of comfort in the family? 2) Are there plenty of ways that family members soothe, comfort and cope that don’t have to do with food (talking, cuddling, time alone, exercise, relaxation)? 3) Is the home environment one in which the family members can express feelings openly and comfortably, rather than bottle them up? If some of these areas seem like trouble spots, take some simple steps to add to the family’s toolkit for handling conflict and distress. Family meetings to air grievances where all parties have a chance to be heard, increasing empathy among family members when one member is going through a difficult time, are some initial ideas for improving these areas.
Teach them to listen to their tummy – how hungry are they really?
In addition to teaching your child to tune into and attend to emotional states, parents can help children learn to tune in to their hunger states. For instance, children can learn to develop an understanding of their degree of hunger or fullness using a simple numbered scale. For example, 1 – I am starving, 2 – I am hungry, 3 – I am not sure, 4 – I am comfortably full, 5 – I am stuffed. Helping children tune into the numbers 2, 3, and 4 will assist them in keeping that connection between their stomach and their head. Parents can also help children avoid “mindless” eating by keeping eating mostly limited to the kitchen, and not snacking during screen time.
Empower children to love themselves as they are
Another approach for parents, and an important one, is to regularly reinforce the message for children to love themselves as they are. Separating children’s sense of self-worth from their weight, body size, and body shape will provide children with lifelong resilience and pave the way toward a healthy body image.
Resolve your own eating issues so you can model healthy eating behavior
Adults who struggle with their own emotional eating can usually find ties all the way back to childhood, so when parents take steps now to keep children from developing this maladaptive pattern, it goes a long way toward their child’s future healthy eating. Further, as every parent knows, children constantly take in what they see their parents doing. As such, parents who are emotional eaters should keep in mind that working to resolve your own personal eating hang-ups will ultimately trickle down into benefitting their children.