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25th Apr 2017

Emotional eater? This is how it affects your children

Alison Bough

Emotional eaters (people who eat when they feel sad or upset or as a result of being in a bad mood) are a common breed of grownup, but why children and adolescents eat emotionally has been less clear.

Now, a new study from Norway has found that school-age children whose parents feed them in order to soothe negative feelings are more likely to eat emotionally later in life.

The findings, published in the journal Child Developmentcome from researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, King’s College London, University College London, and the University of Leeds.

The study’s lead author and professor of psychology, Silje Steinsbekk, says that when children eat to soothe their negative feelings, their food tends to be high in calories (e.g. sweets) so they consume more calories. If they emotionally overeat frequently, they are also more likely to be encounter problems surrounding over- and under-eating later on:

“Understanding where emotional eating comes from is important because such behaviour can increase the risk for being overweight and developing eating disorders such as bulimia and binge eating. If we can find out what influences the development of emotional eating in young children, parents can be given helpful advice about how to prevent it.”

The researchers examined emotional feeding and eating in a group of 801 Norwegian 4-year-olds, looking at these issues again at ages 6, 8, and 10. They tried to determine whether parents involved in the study (mostly mums) shaped their children’s later behaviour by offering food to make them feel better when they were upset (emotional feeding), and whether parents whose children were easily soothed by food (those who calmed down when given food) were more likely to offer them more food for comfort at a subsequent time.

Parents were asked to complete questionnaires describing their children’s emotional eating and temperament (how easily they became upset and how well they could control their emotions), as well as their own emotional feeding. Approximately 65% of the children displayed some emotional eating.

The study found that young children whose parents offered them food for comfort at ages 4 and 6 had more emotional eating at ages 8 and 10. But the reverse was also true: Parents whose children were more easily comforted with food were more likely to offer them food to soothe them (i.e. to engage in emotional feeding). Essentially, emotional feeding increased emotional eating, and emotional eating increased emotional feeding. The findings held even after accounting for children’s body-mass index and initial levels of feeding and eating.

Professor Steinsbekk advises that, instead of offering children food to soothe them when they are sad or upset, parents and caregivers should try to calm youngsters by talking, offering a hug, or soothing in ways that don’t involve food:

“Food may work to calm a child, but the downside is teaching children to rely on food to deal with negative emotions, which can have negative consequences in the long run.”

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