When you think your child is “emotional eating,” it typically raises red flags. Most parents worry that emotional eating will lead to weight gain and long-term health complications. Some parents worry that emotional eating is an early sign of an eating disorder. So let’s find out what emotional eating is, why it might be happening, and what you can do to help your child.
What is emotional eating?
Typically when parents worry their child is emotional eating, they report these signs:
- Weight gain
- Eating more than the parent thinks the child should need
- Snacking a lot
- The child craves carbs and sugar
- Conversations in which the child says they can’t stop thinking about food or can’t stop eating
- Post-eating bellyaches and bloating
If these are your concerns, I understand. Parenting around food and weight is tricky. But also, please be careful! Because if you label your child as an “emotional eater” you risk pathologizing hunger and not supporting your child’s lifelong health.
Emotional eating is considered a bad thing. Parents who say their kids are emotional eaters are worried about their physical and mental health. In our culture having “too much” hunger is greedy and enjoying “too much” food is pathological.
But all eating is emotional because physiological sensations, including hunger, trigger emotions. A lack of food creates an emotional state, most often irritation, anger and a drive to eat. This is biologically adaptive and not unique to your child. All mammals are wired to respond to the physical sensation of hunger with a craving for food and emotions like aggression or anger to help them acquire it.
Think back to when your child was an infant. Your baby’s first demand was most likely for food. I would guess your baby felt hunger and displayed an emotional response like crying and looking mad to get your attention. When a baby feels hungry, they scrunch their face in anger and cry loudly to attract their parents’ attention and meet their needs.
Now consider your infant’s emotional response to being fed breast milk or formula. You probably noticed a look of contentment, peace, even joy on your baby’s face when being fed. Eating is inherently emotionally pleasing – it’s meant to be! All mammals have an emotional response when they are hungry an an emotional response when they are fed.
Thus, feeding kids is inherently emotional, and we should avoid pathologizing a natural instinct or suggesting a mental health condition when there is none.
How you address your child’s emotional eating can make a huge difference. Your response may help them learn self-care and intuitive eating. Or it could lead them to adopt maladaptive behaviors like binge eating and restriction. This matters, so I’m glad you’re thinking about it!
The reasons your child is emotional eating
The usual reaction when a child is emotionally eating is to assume something is wrong with the child’s mental health. But often, the solution is far simpler than psychology. It’s most often structural and, therefore, within your control. Here are the main reasons your child may use emotional eating:
Hunger is a physiological symptom that triggers an emotional reaction. Think of the term “hangry,” which perfectly demonstrates what happens when a person is hungry. They get grumpy, angry, and have trouble concentrating. They will start to crave highly palatable foods like carbs and sugars because their blood sugar is dipping dangerously low. The first question to ask if your child is using emotional eating is whether they are getting enough food on a regular basis. If you’re unsure, please talk to a non-diet dietitian who can help you figure out how much food your child needs at this stage in their development. Most parents are surprised to find that it’s far more than they thought.
2. Lack of feeding structure
Emotional or chaotic eating is often due to a lack of feeding structure. When there is an inadequate feeding structure, the child’s hunger is out of balance, and they find themselves frequently hungry and dysregulated. Parents should serve kids food every 3-4 hours. This typically includes 3 meals and 2-3 snacks. Having a feeding structure eliminates almost all feeding issues and is the primary treatment for any type of eating disorder. Unless you begin with a solid structure, your child will continue exhibiting signs of emotional eating.
3. Poor sleep hygiene
Sleep is essential for many reasons, including appetite regulation, digestion, and emotional regulation. Before you worry that your child has any sort of mental health issue or diagnose them with emotional eating, ensure that they have good sleep hygiene. Therapy and nutritional advice will not help a sleep-deprived child. Like a feeding structure, sleep is essential to physical and mental health.
4. Emotional dysregulation
If all of the above conditions are met but your child is still emotionally eating, your child likely needs help with emotional regulation. It’s our job as parents to help our kids develop emotional regulation by co-regulating with them and building their emotional literacy throughout their lives. We can learn this skill and teach it to our kids. So once all the above conditions are met, emotional regulation is the next area to focus on.
What can parents do to stop a child from emotional eating?
Most of the time, the best thing a parent can do to stop a child from emotional eating is to attend to our parental responsibilities. Make sure your child is getting enough food on a consistent schedule. Ensure they get the sleep they need with a stable bedtime. And finally, work with them on emotional regulation to help them label emotions and work through emotional dysregulation.
Once that is covered, learn how to talk about food neutrally. This means not labeling food as good or bad. Instead, talk to your child about how to balance food to feel satisfied and avoid getting too hungry. For example, a meal should ideally include fat, carbs, protein, and fruit/vegetables. A snack should ideally include at least two of those elements. This simple model can help children learn to feed themselves in a way that keeps them satisfied for several hours and will reduce chaotic eating driven by hunger and the associated emotions.
Avoid cutting out food groups unless your child has a medically diagnosed allergy. It is common to restrict foods like wheat and sugar based on non-medical diagnosis, but this can lead to disordered eating for many children. The best diets are balanced and incorporate a variety of food from all food groups. They also include highly-palatable foods like cookies and chips as part of the variety.
This is the prescription for raising healthy children who can regulate their emotions and eat healthfully. It also prevents and treats most eating disorders.
What not to do if your child is emotional eating
Most parents address emotional eating in the wrong direction. They assume the problem lies in the child. Parents believe they should tell the child to eat less or educate them about nutrition and the dangers of weight gain. This is understandable, but it’s also not the right approach.
Most children who are treated this way will feel shame about their bodies, their hunger, and their character. This could lead to restricting food, which exacerbates emotional eating, binge eating, and a cascade of disordered eating patterns that may develop into a full-blown eating disorder.
Restricting food and intentional weight loss are culturally normalized behaviors. However, they do not result in improved health. 95% of people who intentionally lose weight gain it back, often plus more. The No. 1 predictor of weight gain is not how much food a person eats but how many times they have intentionally lost weight (i.e., dieted and weight cycled). Additionally, teens who diet have up to 15x greater chance of developing an eating disorder.
Frequently asked questions about emotional eating
I know this is a fraught topic. It’s very hard to parent around food and body issues in our culture, which is toxic to both. Societal beliefs about eating and weight can get between you and raising a healthy child. So here are some answers to frequently asked questions about emotional eating:
1. But what about weight gain?
Children need to gain weight to grow and should continuously gain weight throughout their childhood and adolescence. If you are feeding your child regularly and serving them enough food, and they have good sleep hygiene and emotional regulation, their weight will sort itself out according to their genetic and environmental conditions. Any attempt to intentionally manipulate weight predicts weight gain and eating disorders.
2. But my child is already eating too much food
I encourage you to consult with a non-diet dietitian who can talk to you about the quantity and variety of food your child requires to be healthy. They can help you determine what to serve your child, how often, and when. This structural support will give you the confidence that your child is eating appropriately for their unique body.
3. My kid snacks on chips and cookies all the time but doesn’t eat meals
This is most likely a structural issue. The evidence-based feeding system called Division of Responsibility, developed by Ellyn Satter, lays out exactly how parents can set boundaries around meals and snacks. This includes a feeding schedule and providing adequate eating opportunities and a variety of food in a pleasant atmosphere. If you follow the Division of Responsibility, you will likely no longer have this problem.
4. My child only wants to eat carbs and sugar
See numbers 2 & 3 above. This problem will be resolved once you have the right structure in place.
5. My child says they can’t stop thinking about food or can’t stop eating
This indicates a preoccupation with food. The most likely culprit is a lack of feeding structure and hunger. Once you have addressed the structural issues, work on emotional regulation skills and emotional literacy. Is your child physiologically hungry or hungry for emotional care? Don’t ask them – just tune in and determine whether they need more emotional care from you. Make sure they are getting enough food on a regular schedule. If you’re sure it’s not physical hunger, then fulfill the emotional need. Our children are usually hungry for attention, affection, and acceptance. So give them more of that!
6. My child eats to the point of having a bellyache or bloating
When a child gets too hungry, they will most likely feel discomfort after eating. So the first thing to address is the feeding schedule and ensuring that your child is eating enough food regularly throughout the day. If the structural issues are addressed, and your child is still eating beyond comfortable fullness, then examine what emotional need they are trying to fill with food. Are they lonely, tired, or sad? Give them more affection, attention, and acceptance throughout the day and particularly before and during meals so they are not trying to fill an emotional void with food. Get some parent coaching and support if you’re trying to do this and it’s not working.
7. What if it’s an eating disorder?
If you are concerned or suspect that your child’s emotional eating is an eating disorder, then please reach out for a diagnosis by a trained health professional, ideally who has extensive experience with eating disorders.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.
She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.