It’s very common for parents to worry that their child overeats. The most important thing parents need to know is that there is really no such thing as “overeating.” Except in very rare medical conditions, children eat for good reasons. Most often, children eat to meet a need. When you worry your child overeats, ask yourself these three questions:
- Is my child hungry?
- Is my child tired?
- Is my child lonely?
Eating is something many people do as a way to meet their physical and emotional needs. It’s best not to pathologize the desire to eat food. Instead, pay attention to what is driving the desire to eat food, and feed that need.
For example, if your child is actually physically hungry, give them food! If your child is tired or stressed, they may need rest and a snack. If your child is lonely and emotionally distressed, they may need a cuddle and some focused attention – as well as a snack.
Food is an easy stand-in for all types of nourishment. Parents should feed a child’s hunger without judgement or criticism while also wondering whether there is another hunger to address.
Also, ask yourself how you know that what your child is eating is “overeating.” How do you know the difference between a child that overeats compared to a child who eats “normally?” You need to dig really deep to separate your child’s experience from your own complicated beliefs about food and weight.
Think of it this way: you don’t question whether your child really needs to pee, or blink, or breathe. Food hunger ideally falls into the same biological category in which we can honor it easily and without judgement. But hunger is complicated in our society, so let’s see what we can do about that.
1. Is my child hungry?
You may think you know how much food your child needs. But your child’s nutritional needs may vary widely from day to day. They may also be different from your own. You may think your child overeats when they are in fact feeding their body appropriately.
If you are someone who controls your own food intake in order to control your weight, you are likely under-eating based on your biological needs. This means you are familiar with a constant hunger and believe that is normal and healthy.
You should know that under-eating is no better than overeating. They both signal a lack of connection with the body’s hunger and fullness cues.
The best relationships with food and body are those in which the person trusts their body and recognizes hunger and fullness cues. This allows them to know when they are physically hungry and also when they have had enough. The sooner you help your child recognize and honor their hunger and fullness cues, the better off they will be.
Teach Intuitive Eating
Teach your child Intuitive Eating. This is a process that honors the body’s ability to eat (and stop eating) based on biological needs. To accomplish true Intuitive Eating, you must accept that your child’s body may not be the size that you wish it would be. It will be the size that it wants to be. Bodies come in a broad range of sizes. When we try to control a body’s weight by restricting food, we set it up for binge eating and poor health.
You can’t turn off a person’s hunger cues without also turning off their fullness cues. This means that if you teach your child to eat less than their appetite, they will learn to ignore hunger cues. At the same time, they will lose their ability to recognize that they have had enough. This is the endless cycle of under-eating and overeating that many people find themselves trapped in. The alternative is that your child learns to ignore hunger cues so completely that they develop anorexia. Neither is a good outcome for your child.
It may take some time to relearn hunger and satiety cues. There’s really no rush. Just trust your child’s body and believe that with your guidance, they will make healthy choices for their unique body.
2. Is my child tired?
Expand your thinking about “hunger” to encompass all feelings of physical and emotional need. Hunger is our very first drive after birth, and it is what supports the survival of our species. There is nothing wrong with hunger – it is healthy and adaptive. Parents should teach their child to notice and listen to physical needs like being tired or needing physical affection. Without this, the child may assume all hunger is food-based.
This doesn’t mean that when your child says they are hungry you tell them to go take a nap. Instead, get curious about what your child’s hunger is telling you. Pay attention to when they say they are hungry and the types of food they are hungering for.
Think about whether they are getting enough sleep or if there are physical disruptions causing stress in their life. Perhaps you have a new infant, an out of town visitor, or the beginning of a new job or school year. All of these can disrupt your child’s sense of physical safety. The solution is not to never have changes. Instead, pay attention to your child and recognize that sometimes food hunger is a mask for a physical sleep or safety need.
Talk about hunger
If you suspect your child may be reacting to a physical sleep or safety need with food hunger, begin by honoring the hunger with a snack. This shows your child that you take their hunger seriously. Once you have given the snack, ask your child how they are feeling in their body. Ask if they are tired, tense, or achy. Try protecting sleep times in your house so that your child gets plenty of rest and relaxation.
Remember that it’s very difficult for a child to separate exactly what they hunger for. It’s often up to the parent to pay attention to the physical conditions and respond accordingly. Feeling hungry varies greatly from body to body. Some people feel it in their gut. Some feel a rumbling. Others feel an emptiness or a tingling. Others feel it in their throats or elsewhere in their bodies.
Help your child tune into their body to identify where the hunger is, and what type of hunger it is (food, physical, or emotional).
Next, talk to your child about their physical sleep and safety needs. Make sure you are feeding their hunger for rest, relaxation, and physical safety. Be aware of physical disruptions and how they can lead to a hunger that needs attention. And always be willing to serve a snack with a side dish of attention and thoughtful conversation about what’s going on in your child’s life.
Over time, your child will learn to distinguish food hunger from other physical and emotional hungers. A child who you think overeats may not be getting their needs met. With your help, they can recognize the difference and nourish themselves with what they need to thrive.
3. Is my child lonely?
Most people it very difficult to separate their body from their mind. This means that often when they hunger for an emotional need, such as attention, affection, and affirmation, they assume it is food hunger. This can become a cycle. If the child doesn’t get their emotional hungers met, they may find that food becomes their greatest comfort.
As a parent, you want to be your child’s comfort. Caloric nourishment is the first form of comfort we give our child. Food can help us connect with them emotionally throughout their lives. Emotional eating has gotten a bad rap, but it’s quite normal for healthy people to sometimes combine emotional care with a snack, a cup of hot chocolate, or a bowl of soup.
Most of our children need more attention, affection, and emotional first aid than we think they do. A child who doesn’t get their emotional needs met will likely learn to repress their emotional needs and turn to coping mechanisms to feel better. In a worst-case scenario, a child may turn to coping behaviors like self-harm, substance abuse, shoplifting, or eating disorders to soothe their emotional disruptions.
This is why it’s so important for parents who worry that a child overeats to pay attention to emotional caregiving. Don’t deny food if your child says they are hungry, but serve it with a side of conversation, compassion, and attention.
Give more love
Give your child more love along with food. Talk to them about how they can get their emotional needs met. For example, do they want to go for a walk with you? Snuggle on the couch? Do they want you to make them a cup of tea in a special mug? Serve them the mac and cheese you made them when they were little? Our kids grow up fast, but they often need us to treat them like children when they’re emotionally vulnerable.
Over time, you can help your child get their emotional needs met without food. But remember that food and eating are not typically a problem for a child who is getting their physical and emotional needs met.
Feeding your child
Sometimes food hunger can be better understood with more structure. A child who you think overeats may benefit from structured meal times and family time. A structured food plan can help the whole family better understand hunger cues and eat in a way that is healthy for both their body and their mind.
We have several articles on this topic including How parents can build healthy food habits and How to feed your child without fear of bad food and weight gain.
We recommend Ellyn Satter’s feeding approach, called Division of Responsibility. She has several books, including our favorite, Your Child’s Weight, Helping Without Harming.
Ginny Jones is the editor of More-Love.org. She writes about parenting, body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders.