Eating to change how we feel happens a lot in adults and not just those who are overweight. 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. So, the longer we eat, the more of that feeling we get. Learning that food can make us feel better can happen at any age and it’s something a lot more children seem to be 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 a child has learnt this, it never leaves them and it becomes something they are sure of, that they can count on to help any time of the 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 feel something that they can’t find either from others or within themselves. They won’t consciously know that they want to feel secure because something is making them feel lost, or feel loved because they are feeling alone, they will only notice the discomfort of the feeling and the pull to change it. Hopefully this should all become easier to understand as I take you through the 3 reasons children turn to food.
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.
Food as security
Children need the security of feeling. This means knowing what reaction to expect from others, knowing where to go for love, security and acceptance, and being able to connect actions and emotions. Security helps children handle anything that might cause anxiety, confusion, feeling ‘wrong’ or different and just 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.
Food as acceptance
The feeling of acceptance matters to children because unlike love and security, acceptance shapes who they are. Acceptance means feeling able to speak and act how we want to, 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, a feeling of being supported and liked, of feeling ‘right’. 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.
There are a couple of things you need to accept completely to be able to help an overweight child. Firstly, your child is part of your busy world along with your job, spouse, other family, friends, hobbies, etc., but to your child, you are their whole world. This is because their world is a lot smaller than yours, has a lot less in it. This means they need a lot more from you than you do from them. It means that you are their most important teacher and everything you do, say and show is taken in by them as being ‘right’. It means that, especially if you have an overweight child, you always need to be aware of how you are making them feel.
Secondly, I want you to accept that a child who overeats is never ‘just’ eating. They are not different or lazy or greedy or ‘wrong’, they don’t need to be fixed or changed, they need to be understood and then helped. They are your creation, body, and mind and if they are using food to change how they feel, you need to help rebuild them.