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Your child could be stress-eating! Here's how you can encourage your child to stop it

Amrita Gracias Amrita Gracias 5 Mins Read

Amrita Gracias Amrita Gracias


Written For ParentCircle Website new design update

We eat food to nourish ourselves, but some children do so to manage stress. Does this information surprise you? If so, then read on to understand the habit of emotional eating

Primary to 18+
Your child could be stress-eating! Here's how you can encourage your child to stop it

You know that, like adults, children too suffer from stress. But do you know what some of them do to calm themselves? They indulge in the unhealthy habit of emotional eating, or stress-eating.

While most of us eat food to nourish ourselves, some children do so to manage stress. Does this information surprise you? If so, then read on to understand the habit of emotional eating.

It's not unusual for us to feel stressed every now and then. Yes, stress affects everyone, even children as well! In fact, children feel stressed for quite a few reasons. Young children usually feel stressed due to instability in the home environment, change of home or school, or a sick family member. For older children, common stressors are academic and peer pressure, increased competition, bullying, and strained friendships and relationships.

Also, in today's digital age, social media usage and awareness of what's happening around us contribute to stress in both teens and preteens.

Stress and eating behavior

While most parents step in to help their children overcome stress, some don't receive the required guidance and support. Not being able to combat stress can affect children in many ways, one of which is a change in eating behavior.

Unable to cope with stress, some children develop the habit of emotional eating. So, what is emotional eating?

Most of us eat food to meet our body's energy requirements; but some do so to satisfy their emotional needs, that is, to feel better or deal with their feelings. This habit is called emotional eating.

Emotional eating versus healthy eating

How does emotional eating differ from regular or healthy eating? In emotional eating, the desire to have food is triggered by a prevailing emotion or discomforting event. Also, the craving for food is satisfied by only a particular food.

Dr Edward Abramson, author and international expert on the subject of emotional eating, believes that eating is associated with comfort and nurturing. So, many of us often turn to food during times of discomfort.

Signs of emotional eating

Emotional eating adversely affects health because most individuals with the habit, consume foods that are high in calories and low in nutritional value.

Here are some visible signs that can help you ascertain if your child has the habit of stress eating:

  • Displays a sudden and urgent craving for food
  • Eats at unusual times, even soon after a full meal
  • Is gaining weight
  • Eats in response to an emotion or mood
  • Binges on a particular type of food
  • Is secretive about eating habits at times
  • Feels guilty or embarrassed about his eating habit

Emotional eating: triggers and causes

There are several reasons that could lead to the development of the habit of emotional eating in preteens and teens. Here are a few of them:

  • Insecurity
  • Anger
  • Loneliness
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Frustration
  • Resentment
  • Anxiety
  • Boredom

However, a child may also pick up the habit during infancy or early childhood due to various reasons. For example, food being offered to calm the child when he is crying due to reasons other than hunger, or to divert his attention when throwing a tantrum. Also, watching others indulge in stress eating may lead to the development of the habit in the child.

How to stop emotional eating

Once you are sure that your child has the habit of emotional eating, it is imperative to take steps to curb it. However, while doing so, adopt a sensitive approach. Here are a few tips to help you:

1. Talk to your child: Discuss the habit or emotional eating with your child. Explain to him why it isn't a healthy habit. Help him understand why he is indulging in a particular food. Make him think about his habit of eating often —is it because he is really hungry or simply a response to an emotion or stressful situation. This will help your child understand his eating pattern and refrain from eating when he feels stressed. Remember, using positive reinforcement and praise instead of hurtful words and judgemental statements always produce better results.

2. Opt to eat healthy: Emotional eating usually involves binging on junk food. So, avoid stocking your home with unhealthy foods and instead keep something healthy. Tackling the habit as a family is also a good approach. For, when everyone sets a good example, it becomes easier for your child to fight the battle. So, encourage every family member to eat healthy. Besides, when you want to celebrate or reward your child's success, avoid doing so with indulgent foods and find alternate ways to appreciate achievements. Do remember that, for children, verbal praise is often sufficient and that parents needn't always reward them with 'something'.

3. Look for better solutions: Help your child understand what triggers his desire to eat. If he can identify the factor(s) that stresses him out, he can tackle the situation differently by responding in a positive manner. Guide him on how to get through a stressful feeling by distracting himself with activities other than eating. For instance, he could take a walk or listen to music. Pursuing art, sport or any other hobby are also good ways of deal with stress. An older child can be encouraged to maintain a food diary. This would enable him to keep track of when and why he eats, and make him more conscious of his eating habits.

In most individuals, emotional eating is a means to cope with a significant underlying issue. So, try and understand the root cause of your child's unhealthy eating behavior. Remember that a firm but positive approach, which focuses on dealing with insecurities, will help your child defeat the urge to indulge. However, if you find it difficult to make a positive change, consult a dietician or nutritionist to help your child overcome the habit.

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