The COVID pandemic has caused MAJOR disruptions to your kids’ lives. Your kids may be feeling overwhelmed, uncertain, and just not-okay. Stress responses may be showing up like never before. But emotional eating isn’t about the food - food is just a means to attempt to feel better and we are ALL wired to avoid discomfort.
Emotional eating is a normal reaction to all the changes in your kids’ lives brought on by what’s going on in the world around them. Emotional eating can show up as overeating, being ‘hungry’ all the time, food preoccupation, food obsessions, picky eating, and worrying that they’ll not get enough.
Often parents react by policing their kids’ portions and food choices,
which only exacerbates the problem. No one responds well to food restriction. Putting hard limits and restrictions on kids’ eating results in rebellion, resentment, feelings of deprivation, and increased emotional eating. Emotional eating will continue and escalate because we’ve missed the point - we haven’t addressed the root issues.
We need to ask:
Why is my child turning to food for comfort and safety?
Why is my child overriding their internal hunger and fullness cues and how might I be playing a role by food-policing?
What are other coping strategies that can help them feel safe and comforted?
Now we’re talking!
THE SIMPLE STRATEGY TO HELP YOUR KIDS WITH EMOTIONAL EATING
To help your kids with emotional and stress eating, two things need to happen: 1) Your child needs to not feel restricted, judged, nor shamed and 2) Caregivers need to attend to the emotions that are causing the emotional eating.
FOOD POLICING IS NOT THE ANSWER
It feels like your child is asking for food all the time. Are they really hungry? You’ll never know for sure. We’re not in our kids’ bodies and we really don’t know how they feel inside. You may think they’re not hungry because they’re asking for food after they just had a full meal - and you’re probably right. But you don’t have proof. Furthermore, anxiety can produce food cravings and cause a child to become sensory-seeking, which mimics the feeling of stomach hunger. Kids can feel hungry when their tummies are FULL (this works for adults too).
It is easy to get frustrated when this happens. But telling your child they aren’t hungry when they believe they are just results in a power struggle. Kids feel like their food is being restricted (and it is), which naturally causes them to want to eat even more. Parents say, “But, you don’t understand! My kid doesn’t have an “off switch.” If we don’t limit his food he’ll eat everything in sight.” Your child does have an off switch, but he’s having a hard time listening to it. There’s interference - and you might be playing a role. Parental food policing teaches kids to not listen to their own body cues. We want to bring the conversation back to your child’s body so that they can strengthen their responsiveness to interoceptive signals, the internal sense for picking up hunger and fullness cues. Restriction interferes with this delicate self-regulatory relationship.
Do you feel like you must restrict your kids' eating because they’ve gained weight? Remember, restriction doesn’t work. Instead, focus on helping your kids restore their connection to their internal hunger and fullness cues and help them feel better emotionally. Clothes are replaceable but your child’s self esteem is fragile - don’t make a big deal if your kid gains weight. In very stressful times, weight, mood, and sleep changes are normal.
VALIDATE AND ATTEND TO FEELINGS
Learning and validating your child’s feelings will help mitigate the need for other coping strategies (like eating). The hungry-all-the-time-feeling is just a code for I-don’t-feel-okay.
Here’s what this looks like in practice. If your child says that they’re hungry soon after they ate you can say, “Not to worry, there’s always more food. I’m curious, what else are you feeling inside?” You can suggest some common feelings like nervous, frustrated, scared, sad, overwhelmed, antsy, mad. Parents often reply to their kids’ food requests with, “you’re just bored”. But being bored also can mean restless, agitated, lethargic, uncertain, insecure, upside down, worried. And doesn’t it make sense that these feelings are so prevalent now? Of course it does! Talk, listen, and do some problem-solving where appropriate.
How else can kids process feelings? They could journal. Read books about feelings. Play pretend. Turn off screens. Have something to look forward to. Take the pressure off the challenges of distance learning wherever possible. Facilitate fun movement - walks, socially distant kickball games, bike riding, tennis, trampoline, shadow tag.
WHEN TO SEEK OUTSIDE HELP
If your child continues to struggle with emotional eating it might be time to seek some professional support with a non-diet dietitian or therapist who specializes in eating issues. These professionals can help parents figure out what might be interfering with their child’s ability to eat calmly and intuitively. They will guide you to be helpful and not overstep those boundaries that may result in more emotional eating. They will also help to set up structure and planning for meals and snacks and help with deeper emotional and behavioral issues, which may have intensified with everything that has been happening this year.
If your child is lying about food and/or sneaking or hiding food, it might be time to seek outside support. If your child’s body image is suffering or if your child’s body is causing you anxiety, professional support will be helpful. And lastly, if your child is neurodivergent (e.g., ASD, ADHD) or has sensory issues, they may need extra help finding their body cues - a sensory feeding specialist or non-diet dietitian can help.
Emotional eating in kids is a normal reaction to stress and non-restrictive strategies can help!