As a dietitian working with young girls struggling with eating disorders and disordered eating (this is having an unhealthy relationship with food and can be eating too little or too much), I have seen how impactful parents are to a child’s relationship with food. A lot of the cases I see are girls that are using food for an entirely different outlet than it being about nourishing their body.
A child may under or overeat if they have anxiety, depression, OCD or trouble dealing with their emotions. These are often things that parents do not look at when they are looking at their child’s food intake. They are only looking at the tangible-the food going in or not in. When you see that your child is purposefully avoiding a meal, decreasing their normal portions, or sneaking/hiding food or overeating consistently, there may an issue greater than the food. Sometimes, these situations can be physical- maybe they are not eating breakfast or not eating an adequate lunch and then overeating when they come home from school. Or maybe they are not hungry when they sit down for dinner 30 minutes after a practice, they may need more time for their body to calm down from activity. BUT, if these things happen and there doesn’t seem to be much of a reason for it, step back and look at your child as a whole.
What do I mean by this? If your child tends to be anxious, food may be the soother to calm the anxiety, or the same can happen with not eating, it can feel as if it numbs it. Watch to see if there are emotions attached to events, friends or things that may be happening in your child’s life that maybe they are not dealing with. Food can “stuff down” the feelings or lack of food can again, numb the feelings.
As I wrote about in my post, www.beyondyoursurface.com/healthykids, kids need to have permission with food. Creating a reward/punishment relationship, usually with sweets/desserts, creates a tainted relationship with these foods. These foods have been given “power,” without most parents realizing that is what they are doing. Setting a certain number of days a child can have a dessert, taking away dessert when a child has misbehaved or rewarding for good behavior with food, are examples of creating power with food. When we look at a child that is sneaking food, they are probably not sneaking carrot sticks or apple slices. They are probably sneaking the cookies, candy, etc… That is their, “I’ll show you.” That is why permission is so important. The same can be applied to a child that cuts that group out. “If I don’t eat it, you can’t have power over me.” Do you see the power struggle and control issues that are created? Often times, there is more to the puzzle with family dynamics, but food can often be the eye opener that there is an issue. It needs to be mentioned that when this sort of eating is happening, the child is completely disconnecting from their natural hunger/fullness cues, as well as, growing in guilt and shame for the behavior. Disconnection, power struggle, guilt and shame, on top of any other emotional difficulty that might be there. It is important to see how these layer on top of each other.
If a child has anxiety, depression or trouble with dealing with emotions, and there is a power issue with food, a parent has to step back and look at how the power struggle with food is impacting the child. It can very well create more anxiety, anger or frustration that is not dealt with and make things worse. It is important to see how one impacts the other. Talk to your doctor or enlist a child psychologist to help guide you through this. Relationship issues with food, start at a young age. Permission with food is a big start, but so is helping your child recognize their emotional issues and help them deal with it in a healthy way, rather than with food.