A recent study of 3- to 5-year-olds found that children whose mothers used food to regulate emotions ate more cookies in the absence of hunger than kids whose mothers didn’t use this strategy.
More tellingly, look at what happened when the researchers intentionally frustrated some of the children: The kids whose mothers used food for emotion regulation ate more chocolate. But the kids whose mothers didn’t use food for emotion regulation lost their appetites. They ate less chocolate.
If you use food to regulate your children’s emotions, you’re not just teaching your kids that food will make them feel better—though that certainly is one lesson they learn. In addition, you may actually be teaching your kids to confuse emotional discomfort with hunger. It’s the mixing up of these two states—negative emotions and hunger—that leads to overeating.
Children who inappropriately identify emotional discomfort as hunger are more likely to respond to any negative arousal state with food (and it’s not usually broccoli!).
Kids who engage in emotional eating take in more calories. What’s more, those calories tend to be from sweet, salty, fatty, calorie-rich foods and drinks. Maybe that’s why researchers have found that as emotional eating increases, so does a child’s body mass index (BMI). This association tracks into adolescence, and then into adulthood.
Food is a powerful elixir, but it can also be a dangerous tool. The next time you reach for the cookie jar to cheer up your special cherub, think about delivering a hug instead, or one of these 10 other non-edible rewards:
• An extra story at bedtime
• A sticker she can put towards a bigger reward, such as a book or toy
• A little extra TV time
• A few extra minutes before bedtime (even an extra 10-15 minutes can seem exciting to young kids)
• The opportunity to select a favorite meal for dinner the following night (even though this is a food-related reward, it’s not candy, and your child is not earning the meal)
• Game time with you
• A backwards dinner: Serve dessert first, main course second (you won’t need to worry about your child being full if you make the dessert small)
• A ticket they can exchange for a one-time exemption from performing a chore or helping with a task, such as putting on shoes, that you normally insist they do themselves .
• A ticket to be “the boss” for an hour
• The privilege of determining one of your meals the next day
Go wild with the bribes, if it helps. And remember: Every time you feed your child, you are teaching him something about what, when, why, and how much to eat. The only question that remains is this: What are you going to teach him?
Dina Rose, Ph.D., is a sociologist, parent educator, and feeding expert. She is the author of It’s Not About the Broccoli (Penguin), which describes the three eating habits kids need to learn to grow into healthy eaters and gives parents practical ways to teach these food skills. This article was excerpted with permission from her blog, ItsNotAboutNutrition.com. Dr. Rose lives in Hoboken, NJ, with her family.
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