My son is six years old and has recently put on a lot of weight. Ever since noticing his weight gain, I haven’t been letting him have seconds at meals and I’ve been making sure he only takes healthy snacks, but he still seems to be gaining weight rapidly. I’m trying to figure out what’s going wrong. It has been a hard year for our family and I probably haven’t been giving him enough attention. I’ve heard of adults overeating for emotional reasons, but is it possible for such a young child to eat because of feelings? How should I handle this?
It is absolutely possible for a child to eat for emotional reasons. Think about your very first experience being nurtured. It was as a newborn, the first time you were fed. A newborn’s needs are very simple, and it is through having those needs filled that we first experience love.
When a child goes through a traumatic event, be it a single incident or a prolonged experience, he is going to need extra nurturing. Unfortunately, his caregivers may be unaware of his needs or unable to provide him with the necessary attention and support, and he will do the best he can on his own. Food is a natural solution. It is familiar, it is relatively accessible, and it is comforting and rewarding. What your son has demonstrated is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation and has helped him cope during a rough time.
While cutting down your son’s portions and restricting highly-palatable snacks seems like the logical response to weight gain, it is probably worsening the issue. In a recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, children ages 5-7 who were exposed to mild stressors consumed more calories in the absence of hunger than did children in a control group. Basically, the stressed-out kids ate more even when they were full. Parents who used food as a reward and restricted food for health reasons when their children were age 3-5 were more likely to have children who ate more under conditions of emotional stress when they were older. The researchers concluded that overly controlling children’s intake can unintentionally teach them to rely on palatable foods to deal with negative emotions. To a child, restriction of food feels like restriction of love. Being deprived of food or not being fed reliably will drive a child to fulfill his needs on his own. Your son has discovered that food is a solution, and the more problems he feels he has, the more of the solution he will require.
Some clients who come for help with their self-described emotional eating are often surprised to discover that they are really just HUNGRY! They can’t figure out why they are having trouble using other techniques to deal with their emotions. When you are hungry, your brain is going to keep churning out thoughts of food until you finally go and get some. All the supposedly stress-relieving walks and bubble baths in the world won’t change that! The same thing happens when you restrict a child. Food deprivation creates food interest. This is not a bad thing; it helps keep us alive. But it will also have the opposite effect of your intention.
Food is very commonly chained to positive experiences and is used as an expression of love and caring. Using food as part of an emotional experience (birthday cake!) is not necessarily a bad thing. But when it is used too much, or when it is used INSTEAD of a verbal or physical expression of emotion, it can be problematic. Giving a child a lollipop to ease the pain of a boo-boo or dishing out a brownie as a consolation prize for losing a game instead of providing physical affection or emotional support can teach a child that when he feels any kind of discomfort, food can help take the pain away. When food is linked to feeling soothed, the drive to seek it is strengthened, and in the presence of physical hunger or deprivation, it can feel impossible to resist.
The first order of business is to ensure that your child is provided with consistent, structured, adequate nourishment throughout the day. Food interventions such as providing structure around meal and snack times and allowing your child to eat his fill will help by reassuring him that he will get enough food and won’t have to forage for it when you’re not looking. An excellent resource to help you out with this is Ellyn Satter’s book Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming. But it’s essential to understand that emotional eating is not remedied through food interventions alone. If you remove the restriction element, he will have his physical needs satisfied. But if he has been using food to cope with emotional stress other than restriction, he won’t stop unless you address those issues as well. Your son will need you to take the time to listen to his thoughts and feelings. He may also need a therapist’s help in order for him to learn to identify and cope with his emotions. It may seem like it’s his overeating that’s the problem, but the eating is just a symptom of a deeper problem. If you are having difficulty implementing healthy structure around food in your home or if you find yourself getting highly reactive around your son’s eating issues, you may want to seek professional help for yourself as well.
Your child is lucky because he has a willing helper at his side – you! He will need you to provide permission to eat to satisfaction within a healthy framework, and he will need your help learning to express and tolerate his emotions in healthy ways. By doing so, you will be able to step down from your current position of the food police and assume your natural role as the provider, not just of food but of all the emotional ingredients that children need to thrive.
Following are some strategies that you may find helpful:
Using food as a reward. This is so commonly done in our society that it takes conscious thought to NOT do this. Don’t despair, though. Remember that it’s what you do MOST of the time that matters. Sometimes you may feel that desperate situations require desperate measures and you may resort to using food for with an “ulterior motive”, but don’t worry, it’s ok to be human! However, the less often you do this, the weaker the food=reward connection will be.
Using food to soothe physical or emotional pain. Food may be viewed as a cure for uncomfortable situations.
Restricting food as a punishment. This takes food out of the neutral zone. Rather than merely being something delicious to be enjoyed, it becomes a bargaining tool and something emotionally loaded.
Labeling foods as “good” or “bad”. This can compel a child to eat the “bad” foods out of your sight and overdo it when he gets the chance.
Commenting on other people’s portion sizes at meals. This can make a child feel pressured to eat less at the table and sneak more food later on.
Teaching your child to recognize and label emotions. Give him a vocabulary for his inner world by pointing out what you notice about his emotional experiences (such as, “I can see you feel disappointed that we can’t go out to play now”) as well discussing the emotions of characters in books and stories.
Validating your child’s emotions. (“I know, it makes sense that you’d feel sad when that happens.”)
Remaining calm in the face of your child’s intense emotions. This shows him that his emotions aren’t bad or scary and that you are confident the strong feelings will pass.
Showing your child other ways to cope with strong feelings and helping him problem-solve when appropriate.
 Farrow CV, Haycraft E, M Blissett, JM. Teaching our children when to eat: how parental feeding practices
inform the development of emotional eating—a longitudinal
experimental design. Am J Clin Nutr 2015;101:908–13.