Researchers from University College London looked at nearly 400 four-year-old British twins involved in the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS) and found little difference between the rate of emotional eating in identical and non-identical twins, which they said suggests environment has more of an influence than genetics.
Senior lead researcher Dr Clare Llewellyn said the study indicates parents should be advised to think about the strategies they use to help their children when they’re upset during the pre-school years, as that’s when such behaviours start to develop.
“The advice to parents would be try not to use food to soothe your child. When they’re upset, try to use other more positive strategies,” she explained.
So what can you do if you’re worried your child is an emotional eater?
Sit down and talk.
Dr Llewellyn suggested in the research that depending on the age of your child, when they are upset you should sit down and talk to them openly about how they are feeling, rather than offering them food.
Jo Hardy, head of parent services at YoungMinds agrees with this advice, adding: “Try to listen to them openly and not rush to judgement.”
If this conversation comes at a time when you’ve noticed your child is soothing themselves with food, Tom Quinn from eating disorder charity Beat says it’s important to focus on the cause of why they may be feeling the way that they are, rather than using accusative language about them eating too much.
Help children establish a positive relationship with food.
Charlotte Stirling-Reed, a registered nutritionist and owner of SR Nutrition, says parents should try to talk positively about food and avoid referring to foods as “bad” or “naughty”.
“It’s important to try and have foods on a level playing field and to avoid putting some foods on a pedestal above others,” she says. “It’s so important to teach the value of food - to supply energy, nourishment and enjoyment - but not to encourage eating your emotions.”
As part of this, Quinn says parents should try not to talk negatively about their own weight or shape, as this language can be unhelpful.
Stick to routine around food.
Stirling-Reed says if every now and then you are offering foods to cheer children up, it’s not the end of the world and won’t necessarily lead to emotional eating. But, she says, it’s not ideal to feed children because they are upset. “It’s best to try and stick to routine around food and also teach young children to know their own hunger and fullness signals,” she adds.
Don’t blame yourself.
“Parents shouldn’t blame themselves if their child is struggling with food,” says Hardy. “It can be useful to remember that an eating problem is usually symptomatic and suggests there is an underlying problem that needs to be identified, understood and treated.”
Seek professional help.
If you’re concerned about the amount your child is eating while they are feeling down and feel unable to communicate with them, look for help from your GP who will be able to put you in touch with specialist services, advises Hardy.
“As with most issues, the earlier you find help the easier it is to help someone recover,” adds Quinn.
Beat also has a parents helpline where experts give practical advice, on 0808 801 0677.