Most kids are naturally able to limit snacking to when they’re hungry, but parents should pay attention when snacking becomes more than a tie-over between meals.
“Most children, especially young children, have very good regulatory capacity on their caloric intake,” says Samantha Miller, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist with the Child Mind Institute who specializes in child and adolescent behavior disorders. Children grow quickly, Dr. Miller adds, and a lot is going on with their brain, body, and hormones, which can cause appetite to fluctuate.
Food is fuel for growth, and when they’re hungry, they should be offered a healthy snack. “Most children don’t need someone to impose a regulatory schedule on [snacking], and doing so could result in a power struggle for most typically developing children.”
There is a minority of the population, however, that struggles with emotional and behavioral disorders, and these can be tied to food. “Parents need to monitor that their child is not eating emotionally, that his snacking pattern is not tied to an emotional state,” Dr. Miller explains. If a child becomes upset, angry, irritable, or sad and then wants a snack, and this is a pattern seen over time, it could be a red flag that something else is going on.
“The potential is that the child is trying to soothe with food,” Dr. Miller says. She goes on to warn that parents can unintentionally shape this behavior in their children. “When children become wildly upset, what is being paired with that in their emotional environment? [Are the parents saying] ‘Let’s have a cookie’ or distracting them with food?” Over time, a pattern like that could potentially lead to some unhealthy habits and an unhealthy dynamic around food, she says.
Another thing to look out for is if your child is constantly seeking out one food group, like sugary foods, even when you’re offering her a wide variety. After ruling out a nutritional deficiency, Dr. Miller says, “I would look at how the food functions in relationships with others.” The child could be trying to regulate his emotions with sweets or fried foods because these are comforting in some way.
Still, Dr. Miller says it’s okay to give kids snacks as a reward or to keep them quiet. “Most of us are physiologically hardy, so in most children this strategy is perfectly fine,” she explains. Parents should be conscious of risk factors for emotional disorders, though, such as a family history of depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, or substance abuse. “The analogy I use with parents is skin conditions,” Dr. Miller says. “If there’s a family history of basal cell carcinoma, don’t take your child out in the sun without sunscreen. I would argue the same thing about emotional disorders and food—don’t be weird around food, but know your family history, and be careful.”
If you notice an unhealthy pattern around your child’s snacking, and especially if there’s a family history of emotional disorders, it’s best to err on the side of caution. “It might be nothing. But I would encourage parents to call a child psychologist the way they would call a pediatrician when their kid has a stomachache. A child’s emotional health is just as important as her physical health.”