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Column Sweets and treats? We’re teaching children all the wrong lessons

Many parents use sweet food as a motivation for children, writes Joanna Fortune – but what effect does this have in later life?


One in four, or 26 per cent of our nations nine-year-olds are classified as overweight or obese.

Twenty-three per cent of children between one and four are above the recommended weight for their age.

Children as young as five years of age are developing eating disorders and/or presenting with eating disordered behaviour or EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified).

In my own parent/child clinic we are seeing an increasing number of families with children, often very young, presenting with eating disordered behaviour. The question is why are our children developing such an unhealthy relationship with food at such a young age and what does this mean for them as they grow up into adulthood?

There’s the adverse influence of media, society, commercialised play, beauty salons for children, pageants, sexualised clothing (indeed I’ve written about these topics on here before) and how this encourages children to become very body obsessed at far too premature an age – these are all contributing factors. However, there is a much more challenging factor, closer to home.

Think about it for a minute. How do you use food in your home to incentivise behaviour?

When we explore with parents how they incentivise positive behaviours at home, most will admit that they use food – particularly sweet food – as a motivational tool, ie ‘If you tidy the sitting room you can have an ice-cream’ or ‘Oh, you cut your knee, don’t cry, have a chocolate bar,’ or ‘If you do/don’t do what I’m asking you can/cannot have dessert.’

Emotional charge

What this is doing is placing an emotional charge around food for children at a young age. When I feel sad or hurt I eat chocolate to feel better; or I can get Mum/Dad to offer me ice-cream by initially refusing to do what they ask: ‘I did what you asked, so what treat are you going to give me?’

Food should only ever be food, something we eat, and yes, take pleasure in – it’s a social practice, a family time event, an opportunity to sit and talk and share – but it is still just food and something we use to feed ourselves, stay healthy and give us enough energy to achieve all we have to do through the days. Food should never be used as a reward/punishment with children!

Placing an emotional charge around food at a young age allows children to use it as a control tool: refusing to eat, controlling what you cook for them, throwing tantrums unless you give in and give them access to the chocolate tin etc. It also tells children that eating such food is an answer to uncomfortable feelings. It distracts from body regulation, so their eating is not controlled by listening to the cues from their body telling them that they are hungry or full. It teaches them to eat when they are not hungry because they are allowing their emotional states to dictate and be dictated to by food.

Junk food

Placing an emotional charge around food at a young age can have lifelong consequences for children as they grow up. They learn that the answer to emotional challenges does not lie within themselves (to regulate, problem solve and control); nor do they seek such outcomes through relating to others to talk about what is distressing them. Instead, they turn to food, junk food, to “feel better”.

A 2003 study reported in the Eating Behaviours journal asked 122 adults to consider their current eating habits with reference to how they recall their memories about food as children. There was a strong correlation between those adults who had unhealthy relationships with food as adults and those who could recall their parents using food as a reward/punishment tool in their childhoods.

Using food as a reward or punishment tool in your parenting will not only have adverse developmental impact, but it isn’t a sustainable effective tool – it is not one that you, as parent, can stay in control of. Your child learns that they can manipulate you in different situations to get what they want from you. And rather than address the behaviour you are trying to change, it perpetuates it and can make it worse.

I fully understand why this technique is being used. It is (relatively) inexpensive, to hand and can bring immediate short-term behavioural changes. It also teaches that achievement is linked to food: because I did well at something, I will treat myself to a second helping of dessert to celebrate. It places a value system on food, healthier food choices are less valuable as they are never used to reward but rather used as a means to get a reward – ‘If you eat your vegetables you can have ice-cream.’ It is always the sugary, fatty foods that serve as the reward so by association these become more valuable and more enticing to children.

Comfort eating

There are global multi billion euro industries devoted to maintaining an emotional charge around food and equally global multi billion euro industries claiming to help us break those cycles.  Comfort eating is an everyday phrase, and pretty much everybody can name, without hesitation, what their comfort food of choice is as an adult. We have a growing, worldwide and very serious problem with body image and weight related illnesses (both under and over weight). And when our infant children are developing unhealthy relationships to food, we have to look for where they are learning this from and how can we model a different way for them.

Some tasks at home are simply not to be rewarded. They are something that your child must be responsible for doing – such as tidying up their toys. Elsewhere, use time and privilege rather than food to incentivise: you gain or lose 10 minutes of bedtime for certain behaviours, or at the end of a good week you get to sit with Mum/Dad and make an art collage of all the best bits of your week together, or make play-doh at home to build things together.

We also need to embody what we are teaching our children in our own behaviour. Don’t let your child see you using food to reward and/or punish yourself. Limit the amount of talk at home about dieting and cutting food out to lose weight – talk about eating healthy to stay healthy instead. Create positive associations with food for your family.

Joanna Fortune is a clinical psychotherapist working with children and families for over 12 years. She is the founder and director of Solamh Parent Child Relationship Clinic in Dublin. For more info, call 01 6976568 or follow on Twitter: @solamh

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