Emotional Eating in Children and Teens

Emotional Eating in Children and Teens Family Doctor Logo

Emotional Eating in Children and Teens

What is emotional eating?

Emotional eating is eating for comfort, out of boredom, or in response to your emotions rather than eating for nutrition or because you are hungry. Children, teens, and adults may engage in emotional eating at one time or another.

How is emotional eating different from eating because of physical hunger?

Hunger associated with emotional eating comes on quickly and feels urgent. It's often triggered by a specific event or mood. It's not like typical physical hunger, which gradually builds and is a result of an empty stomach. Physical hunger can be satisfied by a number of different foods. Cravings associated with emotional eating usually involve a specific food or type of food (for example, craving chocolate after a hard day or reaching for ice cream after a fight with a friend).

Why is emotional eating unhealthy?

Emotional eating can lead to overeating because it isn't usually about fulfilling a need for nutrients or calories. Your child's body doesn't need the food. Over time, taking in extra calories may cause your child to gain weight and become overweight or obese. Overeating can also cause your child to feel guilty or embarrassed.

Emotional eating may make your child feel better for a short period of time, but it doesn't solve his or her problems.

What are the possible causes of emotional eating in children and teens?

Some common situations and emotions associated with emotional eating include the following:

  • Anger
  • Boredom
  • Change
  • Confusion
  • Depression
  • Frustration
  • Loneliness
  • Loss
  • Resentment
  • Stress

Even positive emotions, such as happiness, sometimes can result in emotional eating.

How can I help my child?

If you notice signs of emotional eating in your child, talk to him or her about your concerns. Be gentle. Stay positive. Helping your child might be as simple as having a warm and loving conversation.

Help your child develop a healthy response to his or her problems, such as focusing on solutions. Encourage your child to talk about the emotions that trigger his or her emotional eating. Brainstorm other ways to deal with those emotions. For example, your child could take a walk when he or she feels stressed out, or call a friend when he or she is bored.

Emotional eating can be learned, so your influence as a parent or primary caregiver is one key to prevention. Be sure to model healthy eating habits for your child. Also, avoid using food to celebrate occasions or to reward your child for good behavior. Instead, use verbal praise and give other types of rewards (for example, stickers for a young child or a fun activity with an older child).

Signs of emotional eating

  • Eating in response to emotions or situations, not to satisfy hunger
  • Feeling an urgent need to eat
  • Craving a specific food or type of food
  • Eating a larger amount of food than usual
  • Eating at unusual times of day (for example, late at night)
  • Gaining excess weight
  • Feeling embarrassed or guilty about eating
  • "Sneaking" food during high-stress times
  • Hiding empty containers of food