You have just witnessed your child break up with someone or get the results of a bad assignment or broken some unpleasant news to them. They take a party-pack size of chips, heaps of cake, a tub of ice cream, and a bundle of fries to their room. The room is locked and they begin to stuff their bodies with food.
Have you ever been in a similar situation? Do you ever feel like eating is just a way to make them feel better, so you do not get involved? You let them be, only for them to wallow themselves in a bubble of obnoxious amounts of food. This is called emotional eating.
Emotional eating is when you use food as a coping mechanism for your feelings, rather than to satiate hunger. While you may be temporarily comforted, emotional eating has detrimental effects on your health, weight, and overall well-being. It usually stems from the teenage years, but if children do not know how to deal with it early on, it is sure to carry into adulthood.
How Can I Help My Child?
The first step to helping your child is identification and communication.
If you ever observe your teenager eating sporadically under specific conditions (near exams, before or after meeting friends, after a sudden event, etc.), eating more than normal, and feeling guilty after, it’s a good time to communicate with your child.
Ask them questions that will make them identify a toxic eating pattern by themselves.
Sit with them and get them to ask themselves these questions.
- Am I eating more when I am stressed?
- Do I eat food even when I am stuffed?
- Do I eat food to bury my emotions? (sadness, anger, boredom, anxiousness)
- Do I often reward myself with food?
- Is food my safe place?
- Do I feel powerless around food?
It is important for them to realize that eating will not fix emotional problems, but will only make them worse. This usually leads to an emotional eating cycle, which requires a lot of mindfulness to break.
Now is the most important part. Be a part of their journey to recovery.
Breaking the cycle needs patience. A lot of it. Initially, spend more time with your child, especially not only during meals. Encourage your child to make a list of emotions that trigger eating.
Maintaining an emotional eating journal is a great way to help identify a pattern and break it. If you ever catch your child bored, procrastinating, stressed out, or tired, suggest (but DO NOT IMPOSE) an activity instead.
Emotional eating tends to be mindless and automatic. Here is a great time to introduce the ‘5-minute rule’. Every time you catch your teenager at the brink of giving in, ask if they can put off eating for 5 minutes to understand what they are feeling. Reinstating such a habit fosters an environment of self-awareness.
A shift in lifestyle also encourages a shift in mindset. With good sleep, enough human interaction, and daily exercise, you are sure to be on the journey to recovery.
If you feel like the process is stagnating, get professional help. Emotional eating is very different from an emotional eating disorder, which needs professional help to cure.
Be there for your child. Do not shame them for their ‘bad habits. Help your child build a healthy relationship between emotions and food.