Rewarding children’s good behaviour with sweets and junk food may lead to emotional eating, finds research

Do you use sweets or chocolate as a reward for good behaviour? If so, you may unintentionally be teaching your kids to rely on food to deal with their emotions.

Children whose parents use overly controlling feeding practices, such as using food as a reward or treat, are more likely to ‘emotionally eat’ in later childhood. These are the findings of a new study conducted by a team of researchers from Aston, Loughborough and Birmingham universities, which looked at various food practices adopted by parents of children aged 3-5 years.

The researchers followed a group of children over a 2 year period, exploring the extent to which earlier feeding patterns influenced the development of emotional eating further down the line, such as how likely the children were to eat snack foods, or play with toys, when they were not hungry but were mildly stressed. The results showed that children were much more likely to emotionally eat at ages 5-7 if their parents had reported using more food as a reward and were overtly controlling with foods when the children were younger.

With the high levels of obesity in children, and its associated health risks being increasingly evident at a younger age, understanding why certain people turn to particular types of food at times of stress or anxiety could help in encouraging healthier eating practices.

Dr Claire Farrow, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Aston University and the study’s lead researcher, said, “As a parent, there is often a natural instinct to try and protect our young children from eating ‘bad’ foods: those high in fat, sugar or salt.”

“Instead we often use these food types as a treat or a reward or even as a response to ease pain if children are upset. The evidence from our initial research shows that in doing this, we may be teaching children to use these foods to cope with their different emotions, and in turn unintentionally teaching them to emotionally eat later in life.”

Acknowledging the need for more research, Dr Farrow said that early indications are that the relationship children have with food is often formed early in life, and in part is informed by the ways that children are fed and taught to use food.

“Those who learn to use food as a tool to deal with emotional distress early are much more likely to follow a similar pattern of eating later on in adult life,” she said.

“We know that in adults emotional eating is linked to eating disorders and obesity. If we can learn more about the development of emotional eating in childhood, we can hopefully develop resources and advice to help prevent the development of emotional eating in later life.”