Stop us­ing food to re­ward and pun­ish your kids

Times-Herald (Vallejo) - - FOOD - By Stephanie Mey­ers The Con­ver­sa­tion is an in­de­pen­dent and non­profit source of news, anal­y­sis and com­men­tary from aca­demic ex­perts.

At one time or an­other, just about ev­ery par­ent uses food to re­ward their kids for good be­hav­ior and achieve­ments — or to con­sole them when they’re sad or dis­ap­pointed.

When children make honor roll, win a big game or per­se­vere through a strug­gle, a par­ent might ex­press their pride and joy with candy or ice cream. Like­wise, when kids feel down and out, pick-me-ups can take the form of a treat. The rea­sons for this are sim­ple: Us­ing food as an in­cen­tive might get re­sults, and salty, sweet or sug­ary foods are of­ten within easy reach.

You may fig­ure there’s no harm in do­ing this kind of thing. But as a di­eti­tian and nu­tri­tion­ist fo­cused on fam­ily nu­tri­tion, I con­sider reg­u­larly us­ing food as an in­cen­tive for kids to be risky.

Re­ward­ing and com­fort­ing kids with food can lead to overeat­ing when they are not hun­gry. It also in­creases the chances they will try to deal with their emo­tions through what they eat.

I spend a lot of my time at work help­ing clients break this cy­cle. I show them how to stop us­ing tac­tics like bribery, judg­ment and shame that in­volve foods and drinks that can range from a bowl of choco­late pud­ding to a big glass of soda. I also teach par­ents other ways to cel­e­brate and soothe that don’t depend on food.

Plenty of re­search shows kids con­sume more to­tal calo­ries, car­bo­hy­drates and fat daily when par­ents use food to re­ward be­hav­ior. For ex­am­ple, when the moth­ers of preschool-age children use food to ease their kids’ emo­tions, those children eat more sweets when they get up­set. And a French study found that moms who used food as re­wards for their children stim­u­lated their kids’ ten­dency to overeat — even when their children aren’t hun­gry. Of course, it’s not just moms and dads us­ing food in this way but care­givers of all kinds, from babysit­ters to grand­par­ents. And while it’s a big problem at school too, chang­ing pat­terns at home is key.

To help par­ents get the hang of kick­ing this habit, I’ve ze­roed in on four steps to purge guilt and let go of food as a re­ward.

Rec­og­nize com­mon sce­nar­ios

Think about how you cel­e­brate af­ter per­for­mances or if you of­ten prom­ise a treat when your kids fin­ish a task. Do you prod your kids to clean their room by dan­gling the pos­si­bil­ity of dessert? Do you take them out for pizza to help them cope when they don’t make the team? Rec­og­niz­ing com­mon sce­nar­ios is an es­sen­tial first step to­ward break­ing this pat­tern.

Don’t blame your­self

You are not alone if food is in­grained in how you in­ter­act with kids when you’re not at the table. What mat­ters most is your will­ing­ness to ex­plore a new path with­out stew­ing in self-judg­ment. Us­ing food to re­ward kids un­der­mines healthy habits you’re try­ing to in­still, so any ef­fort to­ward change may have long-term ben­e­fits.

Name the feel­ing you aim to con­vey

Separat­ing your in­tent from your ac­tions will help you stop us­ing food as a way to soothe or praise. To do this, imag­ine your child in a sit­u­a­tion where you might use food that way. Play the scene out in your mind, stop­ping be­fore you bring on the food. As you en­vi­sion your child in the sce­nario, ask your­self what feel­ing you would like to con­vey.

For ex­am­ple, your kid falls down on the side­walk and skins their knee. You crouch to com­fort them and tend their wound as the wail­ing es­ca­lates. You keep con­sol­ing af­ter you’ve care­fully stuck a Band-Aid on them but they just can’t calm down. If you’re like many of my clients, you’ll be tempted to say, “I’ll help you up and then we can go get ice cream.”

Ask your­self at that point what feel­ing you want them to per­ceive. In this case I’ll wa­ger that it’s com­fort and re­lief — rather than a de­li­cious dairy prod­uct.

Be­com­ing mind­ful of your spe­cific feel­ings en­ables two things to hap­pen. First, you’ll see how food stands in for var­i­ous emo­tions. Sec­ond, it will help you sep­a­rate your feel­ings from food — mak­ing it eas­ier to deliver some­thing else that’s truly needed in the mo­ment.

You can also try say­ing your feel­ings out loud. For ex­am­ple, when your child doesn’t get in­vited to a friend’s party, say, “This feels sad. My wish for you is know­ing how much you are loved.” That can help you re­mem­ber to try some­thing else be­sides food to con­sole them.

4. Do some­thing else There are plenty of ways to com­fort your kid that don’t in­volve food.

You can hug them or give them a bub­ble bath, for ex­am­ple.

To cel­e­brate, try watch­ing a fam­ily video to­gether, tak­ing the time to say what makes you feel most proud of them. If you’re try­ing to mo­ti­vate or in­spire your child, you can crank up their fa­vorite song, then dance and sing along with the mu­sic.

When you want to com­pel or en­cour­age kids to, say, do their home­work, give prais­ing their ef­fort a try. Tell them that you see them work­ing hard and ask: “How can I sup­port you right now?”

With small children, when they’re re­fus­ing to leave the play­ground or get into a bath, try en­gag­ing them with a stuffed an­i­mal or squishy toy to fid­get with.

Try to get your child to help choose some al­ter­na­tives. They might have good ideas that don’t oc­cur to you.

Ways and words

Us­ing food to re­ward or con­sole kids is per­va­sive enough that the Amer­i­can Academy of Pe­di­atrics and five other pro­fes­sional or­ga­ni­za­tions rec­om­mend that par­ents not use food this way.

But no one, in­clud­ing doc­tors, is sug­gest­ing that you should never make a birth­day cake or use food as a re­ward in any sit­u­a­tion. Food is an in­te­gral part of cul­tures every­where and meant to be fully en­joyed.

Should you find that you reg­u­larly rely on food to ex­press emo­tions with your kids, I be­lieve you ought to try to switch gears.

It’s all about find­ing ways and words, in­stead of us­ing food, to show your kids how much you love them.

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