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  • Writer's pictureTracey Bennett

How to Stop Emotionally Overfeeding your Children

Updated: May 10, 2021

Childhood obesity has dramatically increased in recent years and is now one of the most critical global health challenges. Not only are obese children at greater risk of developing countless physical health problems such as heart disease and diabetes type 2, they are particularly prone to developing mental health issues, including low self-esteem, depression and eating disorders which can impact on their performance at school. Even worse is that 80% of obese children will become obese adults.

Part of the problem is that more than 50% of parents are not recognising that their children have a weight issue. With so many children either overweight or obese it may not be easy to identify what is a healthy weight and any news stories about childhood obesity, tend to feature severely obese children which is hardly representative of the norm.

The good news is that children are more likely to change their eating habits than adults, so now is the best time to put things right. We are bombarded with loads of practical advice about how to encourage healthy eating in our children but what about our understanding of emotional overeating and how we might encourage that as parents?

At times, every parent has indulged their child by giving them too much food or the wrong type of food. This directly increases the risk of obesity as it is not in response to the child’s hunger.

Examples of when we emotionally feed our children include:

1. Comfort

It seems perfectly natural to use ‘comfort food’ to soothe our child’s emotions when they have hurt themselves, are upset or angry. However, a Norwegian study found that parents who were able to calm their child in this way were more inclined to adopt that strategy in the future and increased the likelihood of the child reaching for food in response to their emotions at age 8-10.

2. Reward

Parents use food as an incentive to control behaviour. For example, doing well in a spelling test or getting your dessert if you clear the plate. This kind of behaviour can sabotage healthy nutritional habits. Food offered as a reward is generally unhealthy and high in calories. Encouraging children to eat when they are not hungry plays havoc with their normal ability to control their appetites. It also gives them mixed messages - ‘bad food for a good deed’. Like comfort it can set up a lifetime pattern of associating treats with certain moods – such as reaching for some chocolate when you feel good about yourself or, as found in a recent study, when feeling stressed.

3. Guilt

Imagine your child doesn’t want to finish their dinner. You feel bad because you don’t like waste or you are concerned that your child hasn’t eaten enough and you find yourself saying ‘think of those starving children in Africa’. As long as you are offering your children healthy food, they will naturally eat what they need. Forcing them to clear their plate can potentially lead to eating disorders and obesity as it is not allowing them to self-regulate their appetite and listen to their own hunger cues. If your child is eating more than they need then it becomes excess to requirements and it is likely to be stored as fat.

4. Love

Food is a really easy way to express your love but it can also make us feel rejected when our child refuses to eat the healthy food that we have offered them. We know that junk food tastes good and is going to make our children happy and like the person who gave it to them. The bottom line is that this way of showing our love could be shortening the lives of our children.

Parents need to become aware of the implications of these kinds of behaviours and attempt to find some non-food related alternatives.

1. When comforting a child that has hurt themselves, try using hugs, a favourite soft toy or magic cream to soothe the pain away.

2. For children who are distressed or angry it is important for parents to endeavour to understand and validate their feelings and emotions. This will give you an opportunity to teach them strategies to use when they are feeling frustrated, angry or sad. For example, taking a deep breath or talking the issue through with in adult.

3. Children are far more likely to eat healthy food and clear their plate if they have been involved in the food preparation and are allowed to serve themselves. Be aware that portion sizes have substantially increased in the last 20 years and children of different ages need varying serving sizes. A good rule of thumb is to compare their palm size to your own.

4. Parents can reward their children in ways that encourage healthy exercise such as a trip to the park, swimming, playing football or riding a bike. Children are particularly influenced by their parents’ behaviours so your enjoyment and participation will inspire them to be more active.

5. Giving your children occasional treats is fine, in fact being overly restrictive has been linked to increased obesity risk. However, if there is an association that those who love you give you food high in fat and sugar then there is a temptation in later life to eat the very same foods when you are feeling unloved. Why not try replacing these behaviours with better messages such as:

· ‘those who love you want you to eat well and be healthy’

· ‘celebrations are about spending time with those we love rather than about eating food laden in calories’

Not only will these behaviours help to reduce the chance of your child becoming obese but they are also great ways for maintaining a healthy attitude to weight and food for all the family.

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