In consultation I find that sometimes parents punish or reward their children through food . “If you don’t behave well you won’t come to dinner with us”, “until you calm down you will stay in your room without dinner”, “if you behave well I’ll give you a biscuit”, “if you don’t do your homework today you will have to eat vegetables”.
We also often fill our children’s boredom with cookies, popcorn or sweets, that is, processed foods and sugars, which are a direct reward for our bodies.
In these cases what we are doing is teaching our children to manage emotions through food and to associate certain foods as negative and others as positive. This type of punishment is a serious mistake that in the long term can cause problems. We will be conditioning behaviors to the privilege of eating a candy or simply eating.
Why it is not good to punish or reward children through food
Feeding is a basic need and part of the child’s routine. Food should not be seen as a prize that is part of a negotiation, such as choosing dessert. This can be a privilege that we can give our child, who chooses the weekend from three desserts that we offer.
We have to keep in mind that food serves mainly to nourish and that as parents this is a duty we have to fulfill. Food is not a regulator of stress, anxiety or negative emotions that make us feel unwell. If we make this association in the child, it may lead to future problems.
If our child is restless, we can’t give him a cookie so that he can hold on for a while longer without “bothering”, if our child is crying in the middle of a supermarket we can’t give him a cookie to calm him down either, if our child is bored, the solution is not to give him some worms either…
With this act we are sending our child different implicit messages : “I am not available for you, your discomfort bothers me and I don’t know how to manage it, mum or dad are only nice to you when you are well, when you are not well the solution is to eat because this way you calm down”… We end up encouraging emotional hunger in the long term, increasing the risk of overweight and eating disorders.
The psychological effects of this education strategy
What happens when we offer or remove food based on our child’s behavior? We are anaesthetising, suppressing and distracting the negative emotional states of our children .
Children need to be restless, bored and have tantrums and naturally we are the ones who have to calm our children down, as we are their regulating source of emotions. As they learn to regulate the emotions of children, so they will regulate them as adults.
A child who has been soothed by food, how will he manage his emotions as an adult? Probably in any situation that is overwhelming or for which you do not have the necessary management resources, what you will do is calm the discomfort by going to the refrigerator.
When we engage in this type of behavior we do not usually turn to healthy foods such as fruits or vegetables, but as I said before we turn to foods rich in fats and sugars. What happens after eating? In the short term the intake is calm, but in the long term there is guilt about the binge eating .
If we learn from childhood that the intake is calm, it will be a very difficult circle to break. By using sweets or processed foods as prizes we are not helping the little ones. They are unhealthy foods.
If we want our children’s behavior to be good, it is best not to make a connection between behavior and this type of food, since we will be giving special importance to this type of food. If we want their behaviour to improve, our role is to explain and teach them why to behave in one way or another and how . The best reward will be verbal and emotional reinforcement.
An unsuitable type of punishment
Punishing children by eating food they do not like (usually fish, vegetables or fruit) does not solve the original problem and does not help the child’s nutrition either. What will happen is that a bigger tantrum will appear when the child has to eat that dish that he or she likes so little. Also, if they eat this type of food as a punishment we will get even less of a taste for it, as they will become averse to it.
That fish, vegetables or fruit are not in the child’s diet is not an option , we have to introduce them little by little. Sometimes, for not fighting or for comfort for ourselves, we give up and accept that the child does not want to eat it, but this is important to change it.
If we associate our child’s misbehavior or behavior with a punishment in which he has to eat some food he doesn’t like, he will associate that food as something unpleasant and negative, so he will not want to incorporate that food into his diet. On the contrary, it will happen with prizes such as sweets and treats. They will be associated with something pleasant and positive, so you will always want to feel the pleasure of eating foods high in sugars.
It is important that lunch or dinner time becomes a pleasant family moment , in which it is not tinged by arguments or is a moment of punishment. In this way there will be no negative associations with food intake.
I always say that there are two important things we should not punish our children with: food and affection. The absence of both can create long-term emotional problems for them.
When setting a consequence it is important that the chosen consequence is related to the behavior the child has set in motion. For example, imagine that our child has started playing with a bottle of water which he has spilled all over the floor and we punish him by telling him that tonight he will eat green beans. The child gets angry, cries, shouts, while we collect all the spilled water.
Furthermore, at dinner time and when he has to drink the beans the tantrum will come back . What has the child learned from the situation? Has the initial problem been solved? Have we taught the child what to do in this situation? In a situation like this, the child will not find a relationship between the behavior performed and the consequence.
It is important that the consequence be established immediately to the behavior and be related . In this case, if the child has spilled all the water we will have to teach her how to collect it and how to do it. That something that has been fun for him turns into something a little more tedious such as collecting. In this case we will be teaching the child to repair those negative behaviors that have been set in motion.