Help Children Develop Positive Eating Habits


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Question: Carla, my 8-year-old daughter, always says that she is hungry, even soon after she has eaten. She is beginning to put on some extra weight. What can I do to help?

Answer: Childhood obesity is a growing problem, and you are wise to think about how to help your child at this point. Sometimes children eat in response to psychological concerns, and other times physiological factors are an important influence. Education about healthy choices, exercise and positive modeling from parents are important strategies that help children, and we encourage you to explore these options. The following information focuses on a more subtle aspect of overeating: a child's ability to pay attention to his or her own body.

Infants rely on parents

Early childhood experts believe that infants react to their bodily states but do not really recognize the source or nature of their bodily signals. The attuned parent or other caretaker does, though. A parent soon learns that one cry means a child is hungry, another that he or she is wet, and a third that he or she is tired. Parents use different words and different physical responses to each state. Infants learn from the attention of parents and gradually begin to organize and understand their own bodily feelings, doing for themselves what their parents previously did for them.

Taking over responsibility for their bodies

During the toddler and early childhood years, parents often help and encourage children to start organizing, identifying and responding to their own bodily signals. This is more than gaining a technical skill; taking possession of one's body also is laden with emotional meaning. On the one hand, children are proud that they are in charge of their bodies, the ones who really know what their bodies are telling them. On the other hand, along with this autonomy comes the keen awareness that they are alone with their bodies and reliant, ultimately, on their own resources.

The price of autonomy, and the wonderful feelings of pride and competency that come with it, is having to face and overcome the worries associated with relinquishing the magical protective sense of the earliest years. In most situations, the good feelings associated with progressive development prevail.

An example of this struggle within the child often occurs when a child is toilet-trained. Children assume the responsibility of noticing their own bodily signals and making appropriate responses to them. The period of toilet mastery is a time when parents often focus on helping children build their capacity to tune into their body.

If all goes well, as it most often does, a child works out the worries and losses associated with autonomy and feels increasing pride about her ability to recognize and respond to her bodily states. Usually this ability solidifies as a child grows from a preschooler and kindergartener into a school-age child, although children and adults continue to grow in their abilities to recognize and respond to their bodily signals.

School-age children should recognize hunger, and their wish for food should be closely aligned with that feeling. That is not to say that an ice cream cone won't always be appealing, but allowing for such exceptions, a child should generally seek food in response to recognizing an internal state. States of pain should be recognized and responded to as well, neither ignored nor exaggerated.

All of this is the ideal. In actuality, most children are better at recognizing some bodily signals than others. In addition, their abilities to recognize and respond to their bodily signals waxes and wanes. On one day, they might only ask to eat when they truly are hungry, but on another day, they might ignore their internal signals and seek food for comfort.

Helping children listen to their bodies

With this in mind, you can talk with your daughter about how she decides whether she needs food. She may always claim to be hungry, and in her mind, she may well be.

Ask her to try to think about what the hungry feeling is like: Is it always the same? Where does she feel the hungry feeling? How would she describe the feeling?  She might discover that she has many different kinds of feelings she lumps together. She may not truly be paying attention to her body. Perhaps sometimes she feels that gnawing in her stomach that most people call hunger, but other times she may be feeling something that she can learn with your help to identify as a lonely feeling. Both feelings are helped by eating, but the lonely feeling can be helped in other ways, such as by recognizing it for what it is, talking about it, seeking company, etc.

Your daughter's challenge to develop positive eating habits can, and should, be addressed from many directions. We have focused on one aspect of the issue that sometimes can be the key to helping a child.

The Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood is a private, nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the healthy emotional well-being of children and their families. The question may be a composite or illustration of questions parents have asked.

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