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Health Issues

Emotional Eating

Children (as well as adults) use food for reasons other than to satisfy their hunger and nutritional needs. In fact, obese youngsters often eat in response to their emotions and feelings.

Consider whether your own parents used food for comfort in your household. This is a common phenomenon, beginning at birth. A baby’s crying or irritability is typically met with breast milk or infant formula, and feeding becomes a way of calming and quieting him. At birthdays and holidays, when children are surrounded by family and are feeling loved, they’re often given cookies or other desserts that become a symbol of this love and caring.

These days, whenever your own child is feeling anxious, perhaps related to an upcoming math test or because he’s being teased at school, he may turn back to food as one way of making him feel better. At the same time, however, there are many other reasons beyond comfort that may prompt children to eat.

Does your youngster sometimes reach for food when he’s experiencing any of the following?

  • Boredom
  • Insecurity
  • Anger
  • Depression
  • Loneliness
  • Happiness
  • Stress
  • Fatigue
  • Frustration
  • Resentment

Even though food can become a welcome companion for your child, the outcome may not be quite what he expected. Ironically, if he overeats as a way to soften feelings of insecurity or depression, for instance, or perhaps because of stress over an oral report he needs to give at school, he may feel even worse after a food binge, knowing that it can aggravate his weight problem. Before the food is even digested, he might be feeling guilt or shame.

In fact, one of your biggest parenting challenges is for you and your child to determine whether he’s eating for the right reasons. Ask yourself questions like, does he eat at times other than regular mealtimes and snacks? Is he munching at every opportunity? What factors might be contributing to his overeating that call for you to intervene?

Avoid rewarding children with food

Some parents inadvertently contribute to their children’s obesity by rewarding their youngsters with food (does an A on a test sometimes lead to a trip to the ice cream shop?). There are other, healthier ways to offer praise and rewards. For a young child, how about giving him a few stickers as a reward, or perhaps schedule a shopping trip to buy a toy or new pair of shoes?

Don’t overlook the importance of verbal praise. When your child is doing things right, tell him. Notice how words of approval can boost his self-esteem and help keep him motivated to continue making the right decisions for his health and weight. Even when he’s having difficulties staying on course with his diet, look for other ways to offer praise (“You walked more than half a mile today, that’s so great!”).When he backslides, don’t nag him or make him feel like he has failed. Encourage him to keep moving forward, and even if he complains from time to time (“I want a soft drink, not ice water”), encourage him to stay the course. Offer him all the support he needs and deserves.

Watch your words

It’s important for parents to listen to how they’re speaking to their children. Is it mostly negative? Is it often critical? It’s hard for anyone, including children, to make changes in that kind of environment. Some parents actually try to embarrass their overweight children into making changes (“Billy, you’re getting fatter again!”), figuring that if he sees himself as unsightly, he’ll be motivated to lose weight. Don’t count on that strategy working. Even if your child is able to make changes under these circumstances, those improvements are not likely to last without some parental praise and positive reinforcement along the way.

Last Updated
A Parent's Guide to Childhood Obesity: A Road Map to Health (Copyright © 2006 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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