Children often have difficulty expressing complex emotions because they don’t have the language for it. As a result, they might express these emotions nonverbally by acting out, crying, or isolating themselves from social experiences. More often than not, these emotional expressions are undesirable within our social construct. As parents, we don’t enjoy seeing our children angry, sad, or lonely, and our instinct might be to find a quick-fix to mitigate the situation at hand by using one of our most readily available coping mechanisms: food.
It’s no surprise that eating is an instinctual mechanism to cope with our emotions. Food and connection are our earliest memories of comfort. When a baby cries, they are often soothed by connection with their parents, and food. Of course, both food and connection are essential to a child’s mental, emotional, and physical development, but it's important to help your child understand the difference between physical and emotional hunger when it comes to food as they grow up. Enforcing the habit of eating to cope with negative feelings and boredom can grow into an unhealthy relationship with food, and create further difficulty in coping with the more difficult emotions that come with age.
Here are five tips to help children cope with emotions without using food:
1. Help Your Child Identify Their Emotions
While children might have trouble identifying their emotions on their own, you can certainly help them narrow down their feelings. Ask if they are feeling sad, angry, or hurt. Make sure to recognize they might be feeling this way due to their physical state as well. Are they physically hurt? Tired? Hungry? Ask as many questions as you can to help them identify what they are feeling, both emotionally and physically. It’s much easier to help a child cope with their emotions when you know what they are feeling.
2. It’s OK to Talk About Your Feelings
It’s important to reinforce that there is no shame in expressing feelings. Emotional eating is a quick way to avoid feeling emotions. Attempting to soothe a negative emotion with food often robs a child of the opportunity to express him or herself. It is helpful for you, as the parent, to also express your emotions. You can empathize by saying something like, “sometimes I cry when I’m sad, are you sad right now?”
3. Discover Healthy Coping Mechanisms
As shown in Step 1 and Step 2, simply talking about your feelings is a great first step to a more healthy coping mechanism. Other behaviors such as coloring or crafting, playing outside, or listening to music can be soothing. While these behaviors might still be a “quick fix” for coping with an emotion, they are still neutral activities that can be used to soothe, until the child is ready to share their emotions verbally.
4. Avoid Using Food as a Punishment or a Reward
Contrary to popular belief, emotional eating is a learned habit that starts in childhood and develops overtime. It is not a marker of lack of self discipline or lack of willpower. In fact, restriction and deprivation of certain foods can actually increase a person’s affinity towards that food when they are experiencing intense (positive or negative) emotions. Most emotional eating patterns start innocently; a parent gives their child a bag of animal crackers to soothe them while they’re crying on a long car ride, or a mom rewards her daughter’s good behavior with an ice cream cone. Alternatively, you might restrict food as punishment for unfavorable behaviors, like withholding dessert after dinner. This further reinforces the connection between food and feelings when it comes to emotional eating. Try keeping food separate from feelings by using non-food related rewards to reinforce positive behaviors.
5. Designate Eating Spots
A helpful way to further enforce the step above, is to designate eating spots. Having specific places in the house (like the dinner table or kitchen counter) that are used solely for eating allows children to further segregate the use of food from their emotional state. This also gives them a specific place to go when they are feeling physically hungry, and allows them to have other areas of the home free to use to process their emotions.
This might take a little extra awareness and work on your part, but the long term positive effects in helping your child’s emotional and physical health are worth it! Which one of these practices can you put into place in your home? Let us know in the comments below.