Emotional Resilience Blog from The Fear Course

The latest research, realisations and thinking in the world of emotional resilience, anxiety and fear reduction from around the world.

How we inadvertently teach children to become emotional eaters

How we inadvertently teach children to become emotional eaters

A number of research studies have estimated that about 1 in 3 mothers of young children suffer from stress, anxiety and/or depression particularly during the first few years of motherhood. The question is does this have any effect on the children and if so what?

A series of studies have shown that that there is a connection between the stress, depression and anxiety levels of the mother and later life depression, stress and anxiety in the child. Other connections have been found with how well the children grow to learn how to regulate their own emotions. For example the greater the level of maternal stress, anxiety and depression during the first two to four years, the greater the chance the child will also have problems with regulating their own emotions as they grow up.

A new study about to be published next month in the academic journal Appetite, an international research journal specialising in the social science, psychology and neuroscience of food consumption, looked at the effects of the mother's level of anxiety, depression and stress on:

  1. The mother's level of emotional eating, and
  2. Whether the mother feeds the child in order to regulate the child's emotions.

The definition of emotional eating is eating for any reason other than just hunger.

There are broadly three feeding practices that parents tend to engage in with their children:

  1. Nutritive feeding, which is giving the child food only when the child is hungry
  2. Instrumental feeding, which is feeding a child as a reward, for example sweets for being good or doing something, and
  3. Emotional feeding, which is when the parent feeds the child to pacify it when it is upset. An example of this would be when a child has hurt itself or has had a toy taken by another sibling and gets given chocolate to help calm it down as a kind of 'there there". Pleasure or feel good feeding, "I got you this because you like it" is also emotional feeding.

The study, conducted by scientists and practitioners at six universities and hospitals in the US, France and Australia, looked at the levels of stress, anxiety and depression in 3 mothers of children between one and a half and two and a half years old (the average age of the mothers in the study was 35), and examined the links with any emotional eating behaviours of the mothers, child- feeding practices, and lastly the child's own emotional eating habits.

This is important because other studies have found strong links between the use of consuming food to regulate emotions and both childhood and later life obesity, with all the health risks that entails. Additionally last week I reported on a study which found a link between being overweight and the level of anxiety a person experiences, and how losing weight can reduce anxiety levels as well as having a range of other health benefits.

The mothers were observed for whether or not they were using food as any kind of reward (called instrumental feeding) or when the child started to display unwanted emotions or behaviours (emotional feeding).

The first links the researchers found was that, as the mothers' anxiety, stress and/or depression increased so did their own emotional eating. They found exactly the same pattern with the children. As their anxiety or stress increased so did the level of emotional eating.

The question is how did the children learn to engage in emotional eating?

The researchers were able to separate out the factors and found a sequence of events that lead to the child self-medicating emotional issues with food.

They discovered that as the mothers' anxiety, stress and/or depression increased so did their tendency to engage in both instrumental and emotional eating themselves and as a consequence of this they then started engaging in non-nutritive feeding practices with their children.

In other words, when the mothers experienced stress, anxiety or depression, they tended to first engage in emotional eating themselves and then transfer this to their feeding behaviour towards the children. So it is much more likely that a mother would feed a child when she is feeling down or anxious rather than waiting until the child is hungry itself and as a result, the child then learns to use food as an emotion regulation strategy, rather than only eating when hungry.

As stated before, emotional eating tends to result in obesity which in turn increases a loss of self-worth and an increase in anxiety, which then leads to more emotional eating and so on.

Learning better and more healthy emotion regulation strategies than emotional eating is therefore essential to breaking this habit and the spiral that ensues.


Click here to learn how to regulate your emotions without engaging in emotional eating


Rachel F. Rodgers, Susan J. Paxton, Siân A. McLean, Karen J. Campbell, Eleanor H. Wertheim, Helen Skouteris, Kay Gibbons, Maternal Negative Affect is Associated with Emotional Feeding Practices and Emotional Eating in Young Children, Appetite (2014), http://dx.doi.org/doi:10.1016/j.appet.2014.05.022.

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