Emotional Eating in Kids: A Primer for Parents
July 22, 2022
Emotional eating doesn’t only affect adults. Children also may eat for reasons other than physical hunger even though they are usually more in touch with their hunger cues than adults. Keep reading to learn why kids cope with food and what parents can do to help!
Do you suspect your child is eating more food lately than usual even when they’re not hungry?
Growing children have big appetites especially when they’re going through a growth spurt.
So, it can be difficult for parents to tell the difference between a child’s emotional hunger vs. physical hunger.
Kids may not have the language yet to explain how they feel, and why they’re eating.
Sometimes a parent’s effort to help can actually make things worse.
In this article, I’ll cover the signs of emotional eating in kids and how you can help them overcome it (and the one thing you shouldn’t do).
What Is Emotional Eating?
The most basic way to think of emotional eating is eating for reasons other than responding to physical appetite.
Emotional eating is eating to soothe or suppress negative emotions such as anger, fear, loneliness, boredom or sadness.
Many people don’t realize they emotionally eat even though they’re often eating when not hungry.
Kids may eat because food is tasty and looks good, they have a pleasant memory or past liking of it, or they may be using food to numb negative emotions.
Or for any other emotion in between: boredom, anxiety, stress, anger and yes, even happiness.
How do you know if your child is eating emotionally?
Emotional Hunger vs. Physical Hunger
Most people think of hunger cues as a rumbling stomach.
However, not everyone’s early signs of hunger are the same. Some people describe hunger as feeling “empty” or a drop in energy.
Here are a few hunger signs you might notice in your child:
- cranky or mood swings
- low energy or fatigue
- stomach growling
- unable to concentrate
If you’re not sure, you can ask your child age-appropriate questions to find out.
For young children, you might ask if their belly is hungry or if their mouth is hungry.
Older children can describe how they feel.
Even infants can learn to use sign language to describe hunger and satiety.
Parents need to trust a child’s hunger signals and feelings of fullness.
Sometimes kids may be physically hungry even if they recently ate.
Every day and every child is different.
The signs of emotional eating depend on what’s triggering a child to use food to soothe negative emotions.
Here are a few signs to look for:
- You notice that certain patterns or habits trigger cravings such as watching T.V.
- Your child is sneaking or hiding food
- Eating while distracted (studying or gaming)
- Increased weight
- Using food to soothe when upset or sad
What Causes Emotional Eating?
Kids may seek food because it’s tasty, or it helps ease strong negative emotions they don’t know how to express or don’t have skills yet to self-regulate.
One study found that kids from noisy and disorganized homes are more likely to eat emotionally.
But a mother’s feeding style was also a factor in the child’s eating behavior.
In the same study, children with responsive mothers at mealtime tended not to eat emotionally despite chaos.
A few triggers for emotional eating include:
- Household chaos
- Food restriction
What Are the Risks of Emotional Eating?
The number one question I get from parents is should they be worried if their child eats emotionally.
Emotional eating alone is not immediately harmful to your child.
The truth is most people eat emotionally at some point.
Occasionally using comfort food to feel soothed or enjoying food at celebrations and holidays even when not hungry, doesn’t always mean a child has a problem with food.
However, when a child regularly uses food to sooth negative emotions, there may be some long-term risks including:
- Learning to rely on food instead of coping with difficult emotions can be a hard habit to break
- Higher risk of developing an eating disorder such as Binge Eating Disorder
- Increased body fat gain which can lead to early puberty (the good news is that kids can grow into their weight, so the answer isn’t restriction)
One study found that emotional eating is tied to depression and the inability to regulate emotions.
The result is often weight gain but calorie restriction is not the solution.
Learning the skills to regulate emotions, however, is.
How to Help Kids Overcome Emotional Eating
The first thing parents can do is to help their children identify the root cause of why they’re eating emotionally.
Once you understand the trigger, you can find the best strategies for your child.
The one thing parents should never do is restrict access to food.
Food restriction often triggers the desire to eat more food.
Restriction isn’t just limiting portions or keeping sweets and treats under lock and key.
Negative comments about food and weight may be perceived as restriction.
I know it’s hard to not say anything.
But as a pediatric dietitian, I see the outcome of negative feeding practices including eating disorders, low self-esteem and secret eating.
Instead, feeding a child with love and limits creates a positive feeding home environment.
And that’s essential for developing a child’s healthy relationship with food.
Here are some positive strategies to try instead:
- Set routines and guidelines. Establish eating routines such as set mealtimes, and guidelines like the ‘kitchen is closed.’ Gently explain the reasons for your routines. However, do not include weight as a reason.
- Learn to trust and encourage self-regulation. Encourage your child to follow his hunger and fullness cues and allow them to regulate their eating. Remember, it’s a learning curve!
- Eat mindfully. Teach children to eat mindfully by focusing on the yummy taste and what the food feels like in their mouth. You even can point out that food tastes better when they’re actually hungry.
- Yoga or relaxation exercises. Stress and anxiety are major triggers for emotional eating. Provide your child with other options to cope with these big emotions.
- Have fun. Instead of turning to food when kids are bored and lonely, give them activities and make plans for play dates.
- Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) for emotional eating. Some kids may need a little more support to learn how to regulate their emotions.
Final Thoughts about Emotional Eating
A positive feeding environment can help kids re-learn how to trust their body’s hunger and fullness signals and self-regulate their eating.
Some kids may need a little extra support from eating behavior experts such as a pediatric dietitian and a counselor that has experience working with children.
If you would like more guidance with applying positive family feeding strategies, get my mini-training and learn how to help your child and family build a better relationship with food.