The amount of sugar kids consume in form of drinks and snacks can quickly add up. Are you worried your child is hooked on sugar? Are you afraid you’ve enabled her “sugar junky” habits?
Your Sweetie wants Sugar — Harmless Sweet Tooth, Habit or Addictive Behavior?
Not so fast. “Some people have a harmless sweet tooth. That’s not to be confused with addictive behavior,” says ZisBoomBah psychologist Beth Lonergan, PsyD. “Some kids get into the habit of consuming sugar because they have that baseline, that sweet tooth. Then it gets a little mindless. And once you get into repetitive behavior like that, it gets hard to break,” Dr. Lonergan explains the kind of habits that might feel like addictive behavior to parents.
The Quick “Sugar Rush”
Sugar — whether it is in the form of sugary drinks or candy etc. — in particular lends itself to triggering this addiction-like repetitive behavior. Why? Because sugar gives kids this quick pick-me-up (the “sugar rush”) that is then followed by a sharp drop (the “crash”). “And then you want that pick-me-up again,” Dr. Lonergan says.
In some people, repetitive behavior is indeed related to their addictive behavior. As is often the case, these behaviors are caused by a combination of “nature and nurture.” “Some kids are predisposed to addictive behavior,” the ZisBoomBah expert says. She encourages parents to step back and look at their child as a whole. “Often, you see addictive behavior very early on, not only when they are old enough to consume alcohol and drugs.” Ask yourself, is there an obsessive quality about your kid’s behavior in connection with sugar? You may hear an “I have to have this” with great urgency — and nothing will deter him. And yet, “A child’s interest in sugar won’t necessarily signify they will become a drug addict later in life,” Dr. Lonergan says. “Moderation of everything is what prevents the path to abuse and additions.”
On that note, Dr. Lonergan explains the difference between abuse and addiction: “Abuse means you are just consuming too much of one thing and it might have an impact on you that is not good, but you can stop it. Addiction, by contrast, is the physiological dependence on a substance.” Incidentally, the psychologist does not believe there is any real indication that sugar can cause an addiction.
When Do Parents Need to be Concerned About Their Child’s Relationship with Sugar?
“A general rule of thumb is, if your child’s behavior is to the point where it causes a lot of stress if that thing isn’t available or the child can’t have it, then the behavior becomes a problem,” Dr. Lonergan says, adding, “If that kid is happy with a little nibble, then there is nothing to worry about.” In this context, our expert stresses that it is essential to understand what will work for your child, a little nibble or a healthier substitute.
What are signs to watch for? “When habits become problematic, that’s when the parallels kick in with abusive behaviors,” Dr. Lonergan explains. Does your child hide food (e.g. candy) in her room? Does she display secretive behavior related to food? Is your kid sneaking or not telling you the truth about what she is eating when you are not looking — for example, when she comes home from a birthday party? These can be early warning signs your child may be developing addictive behaviors.
Interestingly, Dr. Lonergan points out that when parents are trying to teach moderation but are coming down too hard, then this could “promote the start of these abusive behaviors.” To prevent this kind of dynamic in the first place, where you have to be very restrictive with your child, our behavioral expert suggests limiting the “trigger foods” and not having them readily available. “Don’t have a bowl of candy out if you notice your kid has difficulties moderating,” she says. Drawing the parallel to substance abuse in adults, she says, “Change things up. Make sure you’re not creating environments where your kid would be tempted.”
And lastly, Dr. Lonergan encourages you to ask yourself, what do you do? Do you drink three diet cokes a day and can’t stop?
ZisBoomBah advisor Beth Lonergan, PsyD, is a licensed psychologist with broad experience in the mental health field. As a psychologist who is balancing both research and practice, Beth is a well-versed expert in human behavior, including how people change and why they don’t – and “what makes people tick,” as she puts it herself. Please share your concerns or positive experiences; what is your child’s relationship with sugar?