Eating to change how we feel is something common in adults. Eating chocolate when we feel sad, drinking wine when we feel stressed are all common practice and many people would admit to turning to some kind of food or drink to change how they are feeling at some time. The reason food does this comes from the physical process of eating. It produces chemicals in the brain which are similar to those produced when we feel loved, happy and even euphoric. Learning that food can make us feel better can happen at any age and it’s something a lot more children are turning to because there are a lot more children trying to feel better. A child can quickly learn that eating can give them the comfort they are not feeling from elsewhere, give them the feeling of safety they can’t get from others, give them the feeling of peace they can’t get from the world they’re in. Once it is learned it never leaves and it is always there for them day or night.
A child eating to feel better is slightly different to an adult eating to feel better. Children have less concept of the past and the future. So, whereas most adults use food to change how they feel about the past or future (memory or worry), children are trying to create a feeling in the present that they can’t find either from others or within themselves. This will become clearer as I take you through the 3 reasons children turn to food.
1. Food as love
We are programmed to feel comforted and nurtured by the process of eating for survival purposes. However, that feeling of comfort can easily get confused with the feeling of being loved. Love to a child means connection, belonging, feeling understood, being wanted, liked and listened to. The feeling of love is more important to a child than being told or shown they are loved because they have little ability to rationalise. A parent might think, ‘well, of course, I love them, I feed and clothe them and take them everywhere they want to go.’ But that is rational love, it is functional and to a child that doesn’t translate into a feeling.
2. Food as security
Children need the security of feeling. This means knowing what reaction to expect and being able to connect events and emotions. This helps them handle anything that might cause anxiety, confusion, feeling ‘wrong’ or different and not understanding the world. Sometimes a child doesn’t know how to feel better about something that has happened or been said. If that child isn’t used to asking for help to feel better, if that comfort and explanation isn’t forthcoming, if the child is just left to ‘get over it’, then food can give them the feeling they need to make sense of the world in that moment. Eating is familiar, it can be like going to a safe place away from all the things that are confusing.
3. Food as acceptance
The feeling of acceptance matters to children because unlike love and security, acceptance shapes who they are. Acceptance means feeling free to speak and act how we want, to be honest, and to be ourselves. To be sure we are secure in our world and so able to go out without fear. Acceptance creates confidence and awareness of self. However, the opposite of acceptance is blame, judgement and rejection which can hinder the development of self. If a child feels unaccepted they feel alone, they feel wrong and food can easily help remove that.
Perception is key
One of the main aims that I teach is not changing your child’s weight but changing your perception of their weight. Having an overweight child can create negative feelings and thoughts in you, which are centred on the child themselves. You can’t help them and blame at the same time. Whatever you feel, they feel it from you and so if you feel blame they can’t feel acceptance or love or security. They want you to understand that food is their lifeline, that they need it to survive right now because what they don’t know where else to turn. They may not even know they have excess weight, that they are eating more than they need to because to them it will feel natural, it will feel ‘right’. For them, food is replacing you. To be able to change their need for food you first need to start identifying what food is replacing so you can start providing it instead. By taking back responsibility for your child’s weight not in physical terms such as diet and exercise, but in terms of providing emotional support and understanding, you let them know you are willing to listen, to help and to understand, you let them know they are loved, secure and accepted no matter what.