Turning to food to combat stress, to find comfort or as a reward are all examples of emotional eating. Everyone seems to do it – even children – so it’s easy to think it’s just in our DNA.
A new University of Nebraska-Lincoln study, however, explains that emotional eating is a learned behavior that develops in children over time. It’s also heavily influenced by the mothers’ emotions – when moms reported more depression and anxiety, their children were more likely to become emotional eaters when they grew to adolescence.
The study followed 170 children and their mothers for seven years and is one of the first to examine emotional eating – which increases risks for obesity and other health problems – in children over time.
Katie Kidwell, a graduate student in clinical psychology and the study’s lead author, said research until now has mainly focused on young children.
“It was important to look at older children because once they are entering into adolescence they have a lot more independence with their food choices and spend more time unsupervised,” she said.
The children and their mothers were asked to report depression and anxiety when the children were in preschool and in fourth grade. When they reached adolescence (the median age being 12), the children were asked about emotional eating.
“This is a learned behavior,” Kidwell said. “Children until the age of 3 are really good at just eating for hunger, so parents can trust most children 3 and younger to eat until they’re full and then stop.”
In addition, happy moments are often tied to food, she said.
“When you think of birthday parties, you think of cake, and we tend to celebrate children’s successes with food rewards like ice cream or pizza,” Kidwell said.
Kidwell said the study shows that early screenings of parents’ mental health could help in the development of interventions for parents and children to cope with uneasy feelings. She said there were several ways parents could change their behaviors to teach children healthier ways to cope.
“We encourage families to focus on the time spent together rather than putting all the emphasis on the food, and we discourage parents from using food as a reward or to soothe children,” Kidwell said.
“Instead of rewarding with food or using food to distract kids or calm them down, we can use healthier coping techniques like, ‘You’re getting cranky, why don’t we go for a walk, or let’s blow some bubbles or let’s turn on some music and dance.’”
The research was co-authored by Timothy Nelson, associate professor of psychology; Jennifer Mize Nelson, director of administration for the university’s Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior; and Kimberly Andrews Espy, senior vice president for research at the University of Arizona. It was recently published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology.