Jenna is eight-years-old and dealing with the recent divorce of her parents. Every time Jenna returns from visitation with her dad, she overeats. Jenna’s mom has noticed the pattern and is concerned because Jenna has not adjusted well to the divorce. Since the initial separation, Jenna has been anxious and fearful. Jenna’s mom is worried that Jenna is becoming an emotional eater.
A problem for both kids and adults is eating out of emotional needs. I’ve worked with a number of kids who eat because of marital tension or the threat of divorce in their homes. Many kids eat to cope with stress and anxiety over performance and perfection issues, some eat because of insecurities in peer relationships, or they feel rejected by friends, or they eat in response to any number of emotions (happy, sad, frustrated, etc.).
Because food is so easily available, it can become a way to soothe and comfort a child. Food doesn’t talk back. It makes you feel good and requires nothing but your enjoyment. It doesn’t leave or abandon you. Like other addictions, food can be used to numb out pain and life stress. For example, indulging in a hot fudge sundae can make a child temporarily forget that his parents are fighting and provide a needed escape from emotional pain.
Consequently, overeating can become a way to react to emotional stress and pain. If that is the case with your child, you will need to change this pattern and teach your child to cope with life in different and healthier ways. In order to break an emotional eating habit, the child has to substitute another behavior for the food. This doesn’t mean that the substituted behavior will be as pleasurable as eating, as easy to do as eat, or as rewarding as food. But it does mean that if a child continues to substitute another behavior for emotional eating, he or she will eventually break the habit of reaching for food to soothe themselves.
Here are five strategies that will help.
Eating out of boredom.
“Mom, I’m bored.” When boredom results in a child rummaging through the cupboards, looking for something to eat, the child is developing a bad habit-a habit he or she may have learned from parents. Instead of turning to food or to a screen when bored, direct your child to a play activity. Think of healthy ways to occupy their time like doing a puzzle, reading a book, coloring, painting, biking, etc. In addition, allow the child to be bored and simply sit in his or her room or a room in the house without a screen or food. Eventually, the child will find something to do.
Eating to relax.
When kids have less time to spend with parents because parents are both working or working long hours, they tend to eat and choose foods to comfort themselves. Many latchkey kids tell me they come home, sit in front of the TV and eat. It’s a way to relax from a stressful school day. And because of safety issues, latch key kids are often told to stay in the house which limits their activity. So, what do they choose to do? Eat and sit. These kids also need to be redirected to other activities. You and your children can devise a structured plan for the few hours he or she may be home with an older brother or sister after school. Develop a schedule and structure the time with check-in points or a list to check off to help keep them accountable for the time you are not there.
Eating to deal with rejection.
There’s an old saying, sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. Well, actually this isn’t true. Kids who are teased experience emotional distress. Sadly, a few of those kids may even try suicide. Teasing can be brutal like, “Hey fatso! Can you squeeze into your desk?” “Do you think you should eat that pizza?” When teased about their weight or other topics, kids can become depressed, hate their bodies and plummet in their self-esteem. The truth is that overweight kids are teased more often than kids who are average weight. Because of this, parents should make every effort to confront teasing when it happens and work to stop it. Every parent needs to address teasing head on and not allow the lies associated with teasing to take hold in a child’s mind.
Eating out of anxiety.
Finally, too many kids are fighting battles they are not equipped to fight. Whether it’s the bully at school or the fudge brownies at the 7-11, kids need adult help and intervention to deal with anxiety. Their minds do not connect the dots of anxiety and eating. Thus, we need to equip our children with a Christian world view that helps them make sense of problems and provides a way to respond to anxious times. For example, temptation can be overcome, rejection can be replaced with unconditional love and acceptance, balance and moderation can be achieved. Self-control is a fruit of the spirit that comes from abiding in Christ.
Eating in response to stress.
This is probably the number one reason most people become emotional eaters. Food is a way to cope with stress. Think of the number of times media show young women reaching for ice cream when they experience relationship stress, or the number of times you reach for the bag of chips to deal with the stress of a difficult day. In order to prevent stress eating, stress management has to be taught. Teaching children to take a time out, a deep breath, and pray when stress hits, is good training for adult life. Ultimately, our source of de-stressing it surrendering to a loving God who wants to carry our burdens for us. At an early age, teach your child where to turn for stress relief—the Word of God and prayer.
When Jenna’s mom began to pray with Jenna before and after visits with dad, Jenna was visibly calmer. And when mom helped Jenna redirect her stress into bike riding and game playing, she was teaching Jenna healthy ways to cope. Eating was not an answer. Mom’s job was to help Jenna regulate her emotions without using food.