Emotional Hunger: Prevent and Stop Emotional Eating

Emotional Hunger: Prevent and Stop Emotional Eating

Earlier this week, I posted about emotional hunger. Emotional hunger is when we feel hungry because of our emotions, not because we physically need to eat.  This behavior shows up even in very young toddlers. What can we as parents do to prevent it from developing, intervene when it strikes, and prevent it from happening once it has developed?  Below are some of my top ways to deal with emotional hunger in kids.

How Parents Can Stop Emotional Eating from Developing

As parents, we cannot control our kids.  They are independent human beings with their own minds, wills, and desires.  However, we do have an enormous amount of influence on them, much of which they (and us) are not even aware of.   Kids’ relationships with food are often strongly influenced by our behaviors as parents.

One thing that has been observed repeatedly in many studies is that parents who use food to soothe their young children when they are experiencing negative emotions will raise children who experience significantly more emotional eating.*  Let me put this another way: If you use food to soothe your unhappy child, you are teaching your child to eat when they are unhappy.

As a parent, I know how distressing it is to see your child unhappy.  Not only do you not like seeing your precious baby upset, but it can also be embarrassing, frustrating, or annoying to you as a parent.  Trust me, even my little angels have thrown tantrums in the grocery store or dissolved into tears because they want something (usually a trip on an airplane, helicopter, boat, or train) that I just cannot possibly provide them with.

I have seen on so many occasions that parents will break down under such circumstances and distract their child with food.  Heck, even I have done it on occasion (but with dried fruit, not chocolate, as the proffered treat).  I think all parents do this every once in a while.  But when this method of dealing with unhappy children becomes the norm rather than a once off rarity, you are teaching your child to soothe with food.  You are educating your child that if they are unhappy, eating will make them feel better.  And as a result, they are more likely to become obese.

How to Deal With Emotional Hunger

Helping your child recognize emotional hunger is only half of the battle.  Once they understand that their hunger is emotionally motivated rather than physically driven, what should they do?  The first thing you must make clear to kids is that the food is not going to solve their problems.  Ultimately, it is not going to improve their emotional situation.

Tell them to wait

That said, do not forbid kids to eat when their emotions are in turmoil.  Children, like adults, always want what they cannot have.  You certainly cannot expect a child to have more self-control than an adult, and few adults can withstand emotional cravings.  Instead, suggest to your child that if they are in an unhappy mood and that is making them want to eat, that they defer it for five minutes.  Children are often mercurial and in five minutes their emotional state could change completely.  Alternatively, they may find another, more constructive, way of self-soothing, or they might simply forget that they wanted to eat.  Because emotional hunger is not physical, it is not enduring in the same way physical hunger is.

Give kids a toolkit

Another way to break the emotional eating habit is to give kids a set of tools to work with.  Kids have to learn how to self-soothe and need to be taught how to appropriately handle emotions.  Some emotions are uncomfortable and we do not like them.  Sadness, anxiety, or loneliness are not good feelings, but they are instructive.  They help teach us what we need and also help us learn to avoid potentially dangerous or counterproductive situations.  Explaining to kids the positive side of bad emotions can be a good way to start.  Then they can view uncomfortable emotions as their friends rather than enemies to be avoided or ignored at all costs.

Sadness: Help children come up with a list of activities that make them happy.  This could be anything from kicking a ball to finger painting to reading a book.  Certain activities like physical activity or singing actually release endorphins that make kids physically feel happy – and they’re healthy, too.

Loneliness: Most children experience loneliness at some point.  Maybe they’re alone in their room while mom takes a nap, or perhaps they just don’t have any friends who can come over to play.  Kids can also feel lonely in a crowd, especially if they are in a group of which they are not a part (such as a new school), or if they are missing a specific person (like a special friend or grandparent).  Suggest that kids who are lonely call a good friend or trusted adult, play with a pet, or connect with someone they care about by looking at photos or writing a letter/drawing a picture to send that person.

Anxiety: Even kids have things they worry about.  Whether it is schoolwork they don’t feel good at or a friend they’ve bickered with, kids have their own “kid-sized” set of concerns.  Never ever downplay your child’s cares!!! Each of us has our own set of problems that are important to us, regardless of anything else that may be going on in the world.  Do not invalidate your child’s worries.  It is amazing how soothing it can be for a worried child when a parent validates their concerns.  Ask what is bothering your child, listen to your their answer, and repeat it back, along with words of understanding.  (E.g., “I hear that you are nervous because you have a big math test tomorrow.  I know how that feels – it can be pretty scary.”) Sometimes kids are anxious without knowing why or you are not around to talk it through with them.  In those cases, encourage your kids to burn off nervous energy by doing something physical, such as dancing to a favorite song or running a few laps around the playground or schoolyard.

Tiredness: Feeling tired, exhausted, or run down can be the result of too little sleep, broken sleep, or too much activity or stimulation.  Like adults, when kids get tired they can also become cranky and might be tempted to reach for their favorite junk foods.  Tired kids should be encouraged to rest as much as the situation allows.  If they are home and it’s not too early they can simply go to bed a bit earlier than usual.  If it is too early for them to go to sleep, they can lie in the bed or on the couch and “veg out” by reading a book or watching a show (reading a book is better, though, as screens stimulate the brain and can make it harder to get a good night’s sleep).  To calm cravings for food, give kids a warm drink, such as a warm cup of milk (we prefer homemade rice milk). If you want to avoid extra calories, offer kids a warm cup of herbal infusion (some herbs and flowers can even be calming and aid in peaceful sleep – I use linden flower, which has a soft and neutral flavor).  Don’t want to give kids drinks before bed?  Use water in a different way: Give your kids a soothing bubble bath.

Boredom: Kids can get bored no matter how many toys you buy them.  To avoid boredom, try rotating toys.  We keep each set of similar toys in a box and no more than one or two boxes are out at any time.  If our kids get bored, they don’t turn to food – instead, they trade in an existing box for a new box full of toys they haven’t recently played with.  Try also making a list with your kids of projects, games, or activities they’d like to try some time when they are bored.  There are an endless amount of kids activity and craft idea books out there to help you come up with ideas.  Photocopy or scrapbook pages with activity or craft ideas into a “boredom book” your child can pull out when they get bored, rather than reaching for snacks.

Hopefully with a toolkit like this in hand, you will find it easier to determine both what your child’s emotional hunger triggers are and what you can do to fix them – without food.

Preventing and Countering Emotional Hunger

One of the best ways to deal with emotional hunger is to prevent it from arising.  As discussed above, as parents we can do certain things that discourage emotional eating habits from developing, but what do we do if our kids already show signs of emotional eating?  And what do we do if they develop the habit regardless of the way we raised them?  Everyone knows that no matter how good a parent you are, you can do everything right and still your child might do something different! So how can we help our kids to counter emotional hunger in the first place?

The key to stopping emotional hunger from arising in our kids is to set them up for success.  There are four aspects of your child’s daily routine that can go a long way to preventing emotional hunger from developing:

  1. Sleep.  Ensure your child gets enough sleep every night.  Tiredness and lack of sufficient sleep make it difficult for kids to process their emotions.  I know what it is like to have bedtime struggles, so the only advice I have is to set up a bedtime routine that gets your kids to sleep with enough hours left before school for them to get the rest they need.
  2. Exercise.  Too many kids today spend a lot of their day either cooped up at school desks or in front of screens – or both.  Physical activity and movement are scientifically proven to boost mood, so making physical activities and sports a regular part of your child’s routine will also help improve their overall mood.
  3. Connection.  Kids need to connect with others.  Social interaction not only teaches good social skills but it also improves kids’ “emotional quotient” by teaching them how to handle their own (and others’) moods. Close bonds and positive relationships also give a boost to kids’ sense of wellbeing and self esteem.
  4. Relaxation.  These days there is an enormous amount of pressure to fill kids’ every waking moment with activities and stimulation.  I know some kids who are on the go from 7 AM to 10 PM, every day.  This is an overwhelming schedule even for an adult!  Parents do this thinking they are doing the right thing for their kids, by entertaining them without pause.  But all that stimulation can produce stress and kids need a time out sometimes to cool down and relax.  Institute some sort of quiet time in your child’s day.  It may be a nap or it could simply be a peaceful half hour in their day.  Older children can read a book or listen to a book on tape.  If you have the time, reading a book to the family is a great quiet-time bonding opportunity all can enjoy.

Conclusion

Emotional hunger can plague anyone, from very young toddlers through to the elderly.  Eating just because we want to assuage our emotions can lead to overeating, unhealthy eating, and weight gain.  Unfortunately, kids can establish these habits and patterns very young.  Using the tips and advice in this post can help you learn what to do: A) as a parent, in order to prevent habits from developing; B) to help your child avoid eating for emotional reasons; and C) to prevent emotional hunger from arising by changing your child’s daily routines.  With these tips in hand, we can start to say goodbye to emotional hunger!

*Farrow C, Haycraft E, Blissett J. Teaching our children when to eat: how parental feeding practices inform the development of emotional eating—a longitudinal experimental design Am J Clin Nutr May 2015 vol. 101 no. 5 908-913

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