How To Tell If A Kid's Eating Habits Are Related To Stress And Anxiety

child emotional at dinner table

As adults, many of us are familiar with emotional eating. Food is so tied into our feelings and how our lives are going, right? When we're sad, we eat. When something amazing happens in our lives, we celebrate with food. Anxious? Snacks in the kitchen late at night. Angry? Probably some more snacks. We've all done it, and for a lot of people, it's a comforting way to cope with changes or distress in our daily lives. But it's also something we have to be aware of in our children. Is your family going through a stressful time, and you're noticing your child is gaining weight? Or hiding food in their bedroom to eat alone? Could your child be an emotional eater?

Children often have a hard time processing and dealing with big feelings, changes, and distress. We often associate food with comfort, like at holidays or celebrations. But for some children, food also comforts them when things aren't going well in their lives, or they're dealing with a situation that's beyond their capacity to understand.

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While it's important to not try to police your child's eating and relationship with food, you also need to be aware if your child is using food to deal with their emotions. Emotional eating can lead to a lifetime of struggle with food and disordered eating.

teen emotional eater
Credit: iStock / franz12

Is you suspect your child is an emotional eater, you need to take a step back and take a good, long look at the potential stress and turmoil that may be happening in your family. Dr. Fran Walfish is a Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist. Dr. Walfish explains in an interview with Romper that kids will often overeat when they're scared or distressed or worried about something. If you notice changes in their overall demeanor or physical appearance, make sure that you are communicating with them constantly about what's going on, and encourage them to open up to you and express some of what they're struggling with.

Above all, don't turn it into a power struggle over food. By trying to control your child's eating, says Dr. Walfish, you could potentially turn their emotional eating into a full-blown eating disorder. Instead, try to model good eating habits yourself, and never be afraid to talk openly about your own feelings and fears and worries (age-appropriately, of course). Emotional eating is rooted in anxiety, so offer up constructive, healthy ways that your child can manage their own anxiety that doesn't involve food.

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