Unlearning to Comfort Kids With Food

Last week, I “came out” as a “recovered” food addict on Dr. Oz – and shared my professional experience and story with millions. One of the people who learned my story by watching the broadcast was my 10-year-old daughter, and she was surprised. After seeing the show she asked, “Why didn’t you tell us … ?”

Posted on | Ramani Durvasula, PhD | Comments ()

Last week, I “came out” as a “recovered” food addict on Dr. Oz – and shared my professional experience and story with millions. One of the people who learned my story by watching the broadcast was my 10-year-old daughter, and she was surprised. After seeing the show she asked, “Why didn’t you tell us … ?” 

After watching, some things made more sense to both of my daughters – my unwillingness to partake in the “goodies” that they eat, my care in eating, my seemingly excessive vegetable intake at dinner. What surprised me was that they wanted to be on the same page with me. Once they understood where my eating history was coming from, they wanted to “help” me. (However, my 7-year-old wasn’t nearly as on board as her older sister.)

It gave me pause – I often think I am doing them a “favor” by keeping the bad stuff around – they don’t have the problems I have with food, so why should they be “punished”?  It is not lost on me that I view the withholding of high-salt and sugary foods as punitive. I realized that making this transition is not about ONE person in a household making a change.

If you have kids, it’s time to bring everybody on board, and to be open and honest about the challenges around food. Keeping unhealthy foods out of the house is not punishment, it is parenting.

Once you lose the “sugar bribe,” parenting sometimes becomes harder work. One day recently, my little one was sad about something that happened at school; another day, it was my older one frustrated about something she couldn’t do. My instinct in both cases was to offer them sweets – treats to “take away the hurt,” instead of giving them what they wanted – to be heard, held and comforted. The cookies would have been a quick fix; in 30 seconds they would have been distracted. Holding and listening was a bit more time consuming – it took about 20 minutes of talking and holding to get them consoled and put back together again. We are all so used to rushing that sometimes we forget that our shortcuts can have a price.

What lesson do they learn when they come to a parent, sad, frustrated or upset, and the parent hands them a cookie? Do it enough times, and when my daughter is 30 years old and sad, she will have learned at my knee to reach for a cookie when she is upset – and we know how that story goes.

As I said on the show – problems with food often start in childhood. As a rule, mom doesn’t hand the 4-year-old a cigarette or a joint or a shot of tequila – she hands him food. Because of that, these patterns can be emotionally tougher to break than other addictions.

Just as adults with food issues need to learn new ways of soothing other than with food – our kids are a place to get it right the first time.  Bring them on board – stop the pattern of food as reward and make them stakeholders in a healthier kitchen, cupboards and lifestyle. They are savvier than you think, and once we make this a shared journey, there is less eating in the shadows and more health in the sunlight. 

Next time, try a hug instead of a brownie, and see how that works out for you and your little ones.

Blog written by Ramani Durvasula, PhD
Dr. Ramani Durvasula has over 15 years of teaching, clinical and research experience. After receiving her doctorate in clinical...