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Emotional Eating: Parenting and its effect on our children’s eating behaviors

May 12, 2014

I was asked to speak on TV recently about an article entitled “Eating Your Feelings? Your Mom Might Be to Blame.” Of course, for TV, the story had to sound catchy, so the TV host really played up the blaming mother and grandmother aspect. That made me sad; parenting is really a hard job and it is rough to be blamed for errors we make while doing our best. The data, though, really does suggest that how we were parented may affect eating behaviors and those of our children. The issue is important, since at least a quarter of preschool children in the United States are overweight. Obesity at the age of five is a very strong predictor of whether or not someone will be obese as an adult. So how we feed our young children and how we teach them to eat really matters for their whole lives. My take is that this information is not an opportunity to point fingers, but an opportunity to learn and to do better as parents.

What the study has to say

The article was based on a study done by researchers at the University of Illinois and published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. It showed that primary caregivers (usually moms) who had an insecure attachment to their own mothers are more likely to have young children with unhealthy eating habits who are overweight or obese. “Insecure attachment” is a term from psychology that has to do with how we feel about parents who don’t respond consistently to our needs. Parents who grew up insecure tend to have more trouble dealing with their own children’s needs, especially when it has to do with negative things like distress, anger, or sadness. That in turn is connected with some unhealthy behaviors surrounding food and eating.

Real life examples

The study clearly showed that homes where children’s sadness or anger are dismissed are also homes where there are fewer family mealtimes, more television viewing time, and more “comfort feeding.” These behaviors are known to lead to obesity in even the youngest of children. For example, an overwhelmed mother might respond to a temper tantrum by feeding her toddler snacks to make him stop crying instead of using appropriate parenting techniques to deal with the tantrum. Another example might be the parent who puts her four-year-old in front of the TV to eat dinner instead of having a family mealtime, since the TV keeps the child quiet and makes her sit still longer than sitting at the table for dinner. Sadly, this also leads to overeating in the whole family.

So, what do we do with this?

Well, if you have a two-year-old who is already overweight, maybe there is room to work with your parenting behaviors around food. Look at how you respond to your child’s negative behaviors. Do you tell your child, “that’s nothing to be angry about?” Or do you find yourself saying, “don’t be sad?” Instead you could say, “I hear that you are angry” or “you seem to be sad.” It’s hard to do. If you need to, ask your pediatrician for suggestions to deal with (and to help your child to deal with) those negative feelings. Could you tolerate a little tantrum or some tears instead of abandoning the family table for a meal in front of the TV (we call it the brain sucker in my house)? Could you give up feeding your child snack foods or treats to console them when they are angry or sad? Could you let go of the expectation that your small child will sit still to eat and will clean her plate? Could you serve a healthy, well-balanced meal and deal with it if your “picky” toddler gives you a hard time about it or refuses to eat?

Childhood obesity is a very complex issue and there is no single explanation or solution. What we eat and how and where we eat it all contribute to how much we weigh. This study shows how the quality of our relationship with our children plays a role in many of those factors. Remember the teaching that an extra cookie per day (or about 100 extra calories) leads to a pound a month or about 10 pounds a year of weight gain? That is not perfectly scientific, but it is close enough to the truth. A handful of goldfish crackers to quiet your angry child once a day could make him overweight in short order. An extra several bites of dinner while watching TV (we all eat more when we eat in front of the TV instead of sitting and talking at the family table) could do the same. Serving chicken nuggets, mac and cheese, and fries every night instead of fish or grilled chicken and broccoli because your child puts up a fuss when he does not get what he wants will do the same thing.

Grandmothers’ old adage is that food is love. And love is hard work. As parents we all know that. So if we work hard at how we provide our food/love we will do better all around. And no need to blame our moms. We are all striving to do our best, and they were too.