We all have those moments when we need our little one to do what we ask. It could be that nightmare moment when they refuse to get in the shopping trolley or if you need them to just play on their own for 10 minutes while you hang the washing up. Whatever it is, many parents have found themselves uttering those words...
“If you just do this, you can have a biscuit / ice-cream / fruit bar....”
Short-term, you will probably find that this does the trick and you get the result you hoped for – you might think no more of it. But it’s the long-term effects that are far more important, as they can have an impact on your child’s relationship with food.
Using food to manage behaviour leads to higher rates of binge eating.
A study conducted by Yale University in 2003 found that people whose parents used food as a way of managing their behaviour in childhood had higher rates of binge eating and preoccupation with food. They were also more concerned about their weight and more likely to be yo-yo dieters. Let’s look at some of the possible reasons for this behaviour in the context of food rewards, and what we can do about it.
Why does this happen?
1, If you use food as a reward, then you’re teaching your child to reward themselves with food in life. This means that they may begin to automatically a) ask you for food rewards, and b) turn to food as a reward when they get old enough to control the foods they eat themselves. Every time they do well, for example, they may then reach for a chocolate bar or a piece of cake. It’s not a big leap from there to the ‘food as comfort’ approach. For example, as an adult, they may end up in the situation of regularly telling themselves: “Oh well, I’ve had a bad day, I deserve a cream cake.” Of course, we all do this occasionally, but if it becomes a pattern of coping then you’re looking at someone who manages emotions by eating rather than using other coping mechanisms.
2. Your child will learn that you’re prepared to bargain with them for things you really want them to do, and they will begin to try and bargain with you more and more. You’re likely to start offering more and more, as you end up moving the goalposts and feeling less in control of what’s happening. Children need predictable boundaries, so this won’t help them feel safe in the world, if things keep changing and they are the ones in control rather than you.
3. If you bargain with your child when it comes to emotions: (e.g. Stop crying and you can have a chocolate) then you’re teaching them to manage their negative emotions with food. This means that they are learning to be emotional eaters, rather than learning positive strategies for self-soothing that will give them emotionally healthy skills as adults. Now, we all eat emotionally from time to time and that’s fine, but again, if this is your child’s regular way of coping then they are likely to grow up into adults who over-eat. Parent your child through any distress they exhibit by giving them love, empathy and understanding but not moving the boundaries. Ever.
What can I do instead?
Forget the reward concept – allow your child to choose from A or B consequences.
This means, don’t get into bargaining with something else. Explain to your child that if they choose to do x then there will be y consequence. Give them an AB choice within this so that they are making a conscious choice and having control over the outcome. Here is an example of this in action in daily life:
Example: Jack and Jane
Jane has a little boy Jack and they enjoy going to the park on their scooters with their friends. This one occasion Jack refuses to wear his coat. Jane resorts to physical control to put Jack’s coat on him, which resulted in screaming and crying from Jack who, once the coat is on, repeatedly takes it off. Jane is in the company of her mummy friends and is becoming anxious and embarrassed so resorts to “If you put your coat on we will have a biscuit / lunch at the cafe”. What happened here? Jack was getting upset, as Jane was physically forcing him to do what she wanted. He had no control and began to focus on doing the exact opposite of what she wants, as he reacts to this and tries to reassert his control. This is normal, as he is discovering his own identity.
Let’s reframe the situation and try a new approach:
Jane knows that Jack’s desire to be part of a social group with his friends is greater than his desire to not wear his coat. Through this, she is able to get what she needs (Jack to wear a coat) whilst also enabling him to have control over the situation.
Jane came down to Jack’s level and explained “You have a choice: You can either wear your coat and scoot with your friends or you don’t wear your coat and you hold my hand”. It doesn’t take too long of holding Jane’s hand for Jack to choose to put his coat on and get scooting again.
The important thing here is that Jack is making the choices. He experiences the consequences of choice A (i.e. don’t put on the coat and then hold on to mummy’s hand) and decides he would prefer the consequences of choice B (i.e. put on the coat and play with his friends). There has been no battle for control here and Jack has also learned that choices have consequences.
This isn’t a miracle – it’s science. It’s how your child’s brain works.
The innate need in them to fit in and be part of a group will usually triumph in the end, and even if it doesn’t, your child has made their choice and so you’re not engaging in a power struggle. Knowing what your child’s priorities are can help you to understand how your child sees the world. You can then use this knowledge to parent them through difficult moments while still allowing them to make their own choices.
Tip: Don’t get into bargaining. And leave food out of it.
Scrap the “Clean Your Plate” statement
People who remember being told to “Eat everything that’s on their plate” were more likely, in this study, to be unsuccessful at dieting. Encouraging a child to eat beyond their feeling of fullness can increase their likelihood of overeating as an adult. Instead of tuning in to their feelings of hunger and fullness your child is overriding this and eating an arbitrary amount, either to get the reward at the end or to please you.
If that reward at the end is dessert then they’ll end up overeating even more. If dessert is a reward, then you’re also creating associations with ‘good’ and ‘bad/boring’ foods that you don’t want for your child, plus your child will deliberately start to eat less of the ‘boring food’ to save room for the ‘good food’. If that happens then you’ll end up having more and more of a battle to get your child to eat their main course.
Your child will start to associate eating with feeling pressured, and this is not the kind of association you want to create.
Tip: Give your child permission to make mistakes in eating. They will under-eat and be hungry and over eat and get tummy ache or vomit. The key is allowing THEM to make the decision and learn from it.
Monitor your child’s food over a week, not a day.
A child’s need for calories each day fluctuates. Lots of things influence it, including daily activity and even the amount of sleep they may have had. It’s unlikely that you will know how many calories your child has expended on any given day and how many more they need - or even whether they are preparing for a growth spurt and so storing calories in preparation.
Tip: Tell your child before a meal that there will be dessert and they need to “save” room. If they under-eat their main meal to save room then see that as a positive. NB: However, do not offer dessert every meal, so that you don’t get the problem described above (i.e. habitual under-eating to accommodate sweet things).
Puhl, R. M. and M. B. Schwartz. 2003. “If You Are Good You Can Have a Cookie: How Memories of Childhood Food Rules Link to Adult Eating Behaviors.” Eating Behaviors 4: 283-93.
Read more about preventing and managing a fussy eater and how to support them in our latest book Worry-free Weaning.
Dr Anna Walton is a chartered counselling psychologist and Felicity Bertin is a registered paediatric osteopath. They work together supporting families with children who have fussy eating habits.