Last night was a doozie.
It was getting late and we had finished dinner and cleaned up. The lights were low and it was time to head upstairs for a bath. Finally, a reprieve was coming.
My eldest son, Finn, was laying on the floor underneath our dining room table, wailing. Big alligator tears streaming down his face.
I knew the problem and I wasn't going to give in.
"Finn, it's late and you're tired. Come on over here and I'll carry you up."
At a moment like this, most parents would give in. I wouldn't blame them either. All he wanted was to eat more. The problem was that I knew what it would do, as it had in the past many times, to his already slow moving digestive tract.
Just moments before, he had quickly polished off a hamburger, celery and hummus, a full glass of coconut milk, ants on a log, chunks of Vegan cheese, and handfuls of sliced grapes. Did he even chew the grapes? It was too fast to tell. Now he wanted a chocolate donut.
I knew the crying wouldn't stop. In his mind, he needed to eat. Constantly. After all, it was the only thing that made him feel less anxious.
Moments earlier, before the wailing, he asked for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, to which I replied a simple, "no."
I started to begin explaining to him how being hungry and feeling the need to eat could be two completely separate things. Let me tell you, this new concept wasn't well received.
"How can my brain be telling me I need to eat and my tummy be full? How is that right, mom!?" he gasped, completely upset at me for bringing this to his attention. I could tell he understood what I was trying to point out, and it wasn't comfortable.
"I don't know, honey. I just think you use food to try and feel better, and sometimes thats not the best answer for your health," I said in the most comforting tone I could muster.
He wasn't pleased. "Mom, you eat ALL the time. Why aren't you taking a break!? This is NOT fair. You are NOT listening to your tummy! You are not being fair to me," he said crawling underneath the dining room table and letting out his first of many long and deep wails.
Ouch. Truth in his words rang loud and clear. I felt anxious often and food was the only distraction that worked. He was right. But how? How could I curve this tendency, and had I unintentionally passed it onto him?
Food, we need to talk.
Listen, I understand that you're here to nourish my little guy, and help him grow. I am beyond grateful for your purpose.
But why is it, that at 8pm on Friday night, you are still trying to get into my baby's system?
Why is it that when we enter a Publix he is instantly triggered to ask for you? And the most unhealthy version of you at that?
Why is is that if he is sad or mad or even just bored, he thinks of you first?
And why do I feel the same way, too?
Food, what's your purpose?
Is it to make us feel better, emotionally? Is it to make us happy? Is it to give us comfort? And how do I know that I can trust you? How do I know that you're really good for my baby boy?
If you find yourself eating for emotion- or stress-related reasons, how can you stop? Last night's upset really got me thinking.
For starters, I had to ask these three questions:
- WHEN do we emotionally eat?
- WHAT do we emotionally eat?
- And WHY do we emotionally eat?
The answers to these questions should give you some insight into the circumstances that lead us all to emotional eating. Of course, the bigger concern is how to stop.To me, it seems to boil down to this:
If I am or my son is using food as a coping mechanism, I need to find another, more productive way to cope.
After some research and personal heart-to-hearts, here are some steps I am planning to following as I approach our unhealthy food tendencies.
1. Be honest with yourself or your child.
- Try to figure out what's really going on. Is it really about the food? Not likely. Is it something else, like a plea for attention? If you think it is emotional eating, ask your child if he's sad or angry. Try to figure out the obsessive eating trigger.
- Explain the risks and dangers of overeating in an age-appropriate way. You know the list: diabetes, heart disease, obesity, embarrassment, ugly teasing and more go along with unhealthy, addictive eating habits.
2. Bite Your Tongue
- Never say, "Clean your plate." Don't force your child to eat. Left alone, most kids self-regulate and will eat when they need to.
- Don't use food as a reward. You don't want kids to learn to eat when they're not hungry.
3. Identify the Social and Environmental Triggers that Lead to Over-Eating.
- Are you forcing your child or yourself to eat? This may include get-togethers and meetings involving food, where there is little choice about what to eat and drink.
- What environments stimulate unhealthy eating and exercise tendencies? Do you model these unhealthy tendencies and could you do a better job of reining them in?
4. Be a Brilliant Role Model
- If you curl up with a bag of buttered popcorn to watch TV, your child will imitate you in a heartbeat.
5. Make a Plan.
- What is one action step that you will do in the next 24 hours? (An example, not using food as a reward for yourself or your child for an entire day.)
- Next, write down one action step and schedule what you will do within the next week, and schedule time for it on your calendar.
- Keep this pattern of daily and weekly actions going, adjusting it to your needs, preferences, and experiences.
6. Be Real.
- It's going to be challenge. Be kind to yourself and your child and expect some slips.
- Acknowledge your growth and celebrate with some incentives and rewards along the way!
My Bottom Line?
I'm keeping it to the brass tacks and encouraging a positive approach that includes structure, routines, timing and limit setting. (For both myself and my child!)
I hope to help my children and ourselves learn to expect those items and, in return, feel more relaxed. If I can provide a safe environment to learn about self regulation, the rewards will far outweigh the effort it took.