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It all seemed so innocent when we rewarded those potty training triumphs with M&Ms. But when sweets became regular (OK, daily) bribes (“If you put away the Magna-Tiles, I’ll give you a cookie!”), rewards (“You licked a carrot! Here’s a lolly”) and means of celebration (“Hell yes, I’ll have parent cake”), we began to worry that we were attaching too much emotional weight to food. Bingo, says science: In a recent study of Norwegian families, “Higher levels of emotional feeding predicted higher levels of emotional eating…[that is,] the tendency to eat more in response to negative emotions” as kids grew up. Here’s what we learned about separating feelings from feedings.  

RELATED: Healthy After-School Snack Ideas

emotional eater boy

Don’t be too controlling about what your kids eat

While letting kids eat all carbs all the time is not ideal, micromanaging every bite may ultimately be more harmful. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that “Parents who overly control children’s food intake may unintentionally teach children to rely on palatable foods to cope with negative emotions." Eating mindfully with your kids is key: A “positive parental role model may be a better method for improving a child’s diet than attempts at dietary control,” say researchers.

emotional eater dessert

Don’t bribe with dessert

The same study also found that coercing kids by restricting junk food and later using it as a reward for eating healthy food first “increases eating in the absence of hunger, doesn’t produce ability to self-regulate diet but causes negative self evaluation [and] greater weight gain from 5 to 11 years.” Thunk: Head hits table.

emotional eater phone

Try body neutrality

It will shock approximately no one to hear that mother-daughter relationships are body-image minefields. So unsurprisingly, research suggests that “Mothers’ preoccupation with weight and eating, via attempts to influence daughters’ weight and eating, may place daughters at risk for developing problematic eating behaviors.” A body-positive attitude may benefit kids, but also gaining steam is the concept of “body neutrality, which means neither celebrating nor shaming your body, simply acknowledging that it’s there. Apply this concept to parenting by acknowledging your body (“Yes, that’s Mommy’s belly, and that’s your belly”) without making a big deal about it.

emotional eater chocolate

Stop using food as a pacifier

According to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, “Young children lose their appetite as a natural response to stress.” Therefore, soothing themselves with snacks in the face of sadness, anxiety or disappointment “may be a learned abnormality.” So when a kid is emotional, a firm, well-timed hug, redirection or simply riding out the storm will serve them better, in the long run. Sorry, comfort food, you’ve been replaced. 

RELATED: 6 Easy Ways to Turn Your Kids into Mindful Eaters

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