Teaching our children when to eat: how parental feeding practices inform the development of emotional eating. A longitudinal experimental design

Background: Emotional eating in children has been related to the consumption of high energy dense foods and obesity, but the development of emotional eating in young children is poorly understood. Objective: The objective was to evaluate whether emotional eating can be induced in 5-7 year old children in the laboratory and to assess whether parental use of overly controlling feeding practices at 3-5 years predicts a greater subsequent tendency for children to eat under conditions of mild stress at ages 5-7. Design: Forty-one parent-child dyads were recruited to participate in this longitudinal study which involved parents and children being observed consuming a standard lunch, completing questionnaire measures of parental feeding practices, participating in a research procedure to induce child emotion (or a control procedure) and observing child consumption of snack foods. Results: Children at ages 5-7 exposed to a mild emotional stressor consumed significantly more calories from snack foods in the absence of hunger compared to children in a control group. Parents who reported using more food as a reward and restriction of food for health reasons with their children at ages 3-5 were more likely to have children who ate more under conditions of negative emotion at ages 5-7. Conclusion: Parents who overly control children’s food intake may unintentionally teach children to rely on palatable foods to cope with negative emotions. Further research is needed to evaluate the implications of these findings for child food intake and weight outside of the laboratory setting.