Have you ever offered a chocolate chip cookie or an ice cream cone to a sad, injured or upset child? In many families, reaching for a treat to soothe a child is the most obvious - and effective - response.
But is that natural reaction actually harming our kids?
In her new book, "Bright Line Eating," Susan Thompson, a brain and cognitive scientist and expert in the psychology of eating, explains how we learn emotional eating habits from a young age.
Certain foods like sugar and flour cause our brain to release dopamine, which controls its reward and pleasure centers and makes us feel good, she says. So yes, that cookie or ice cream makes our kids feel better.
But when we regularly offer sugary snacks in response to difficult emotions, such as fear, frustration, anger or boredom, they develop a knee-jerk reaction, driving them to put food in our mouths mindlessly as a feel-good fix whenever these emotions flare.
Thus, these emotions become cues that trigger unnecessary - and sometimes excessive - food consumption. That's how the lifelong habit of emotional eating is formed.
To prevent this, Thompson recommends:
- Recognize your own impulse to soothe them by offering food.
- Reassure yourself that it's OK for your kids to experience difficult emotions.
- Rather than offering food, talk to them about what they're feeling. Ask questions and listen to their answers.
- Model good behavior: Don't eat in response to sadness, stress or frustration.
- Allow kids to whine, cry or complain if needed, rather than quieting them with food. It's not the end of the world!