When it comes to temperamental or upset children, many parents may be tempted give their child a chocolate or lolly.
But scientists in Norway say that this kicks off a long-term habit of emotional eating in children, in the first published study on the topic.
The Norwegian University of Science and Technology studied the emotional and eating behaviour of 801 Norwegian four-year-olds, then later linking with them at ages six, eight and ten.
The longitudinal study found that school-age children whose parents fed them more to soothe their negative feelings were more likely to eat emotionally later on. Parents of children who comfort ate were also likely to use food to feed their children when they were upset.
When children eat to soothe their negative feelings, their food tends to be high in calories (e.g., sweets) so they consume more calories. If they emotionally overeat often, they are also more likely to be overweight.
"Understanding where emotional eating comes from is important because such behavior can increase the risk for being overweight and developing eating disorders," according to the study's lead author, Silje Steinsbekk, associate professor of psychology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
The findings come from researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, King's College London, University College London, and the University of Leeds. They appear in the journal Child Development.
The study, which mostly involved mothers, sent a questionnaire at different stages of the child’s life: ages four, six, eight and 10. It asked parents to describe their emotional eating and temperament (how easily they became upset), as well as the parent's own habit of emotional feeding.
It found that 65 per cent of children displayed emotional eating. Parents of four to six-year-olds who offered food for comfort were more likely to engage in emotional feeding when their child was eight and ten.
Researchers also found that high levels of emotional affectivity increased the risk of emotional eating. In other words, children that were experiencing negative feelings more often, or were unable to control their emotions were more likely to comfort eat than calmer children.
"We know that children who are more easily upset and have more difficulty controlling their emotions are more likely to eat emotionally than calmer children, perhaps because they experience more negative emotions and eating helps them calm down," stated co-author Professor Lars Wichstrom.
"Our research adds to this knowledge by showing that children who are more easily upset are at highest risk for becoming emotional eaters."
Parents should instead find ways to calm their temperamental or emotional child that don't involve food, such as hugging or talking to them.