This is a featured guest post written by Kathleen Cuneo, Ph.D., psychologist, parent coach, and mom.
As parents, we need to be mindful of not only what foods we choose to offer our children, but also of what patterns and associations between food and emotion we are establishing. When our children are upset, it is natural for us to want to soothe them. Often, by habit and by memory our own childhood experiences, we may be tempted to soothe with food.
Don’t get me wrong, soothing with food is not always a bad thing. I want my children to have positive emotional associations with foods. And I’m also the mom who went through a period of time with an active toddler whom I couldn’t get to sit in her stroller without the reward of fruit snacks. But it’s the overall pattern that’s important, and food should never be the only option for comfort or reinforcement.
Here are some other things to consider:
- Negative emotions are not always a bad thing. They provide an opportunity for learning and for greater understanding. The goal isn’t that your child will never experience negative emotions, but rather that they’ll develop skills that will enable them to be soothed and eventually to soothe themselves and cope with negative experiences.
- Your parenting toolbox can be filled with tools other than fruit snacks and sweets to help your child handle their emotions.
- Know that no one strategy will work all the time or for everybody. You’ll need to observe patterns in what seems to work for your individual child at particular times. As their language skills and ability to make connections develop, talking about your observations with them will be providing them with their own coping tools for the future.
So the next time your child is upset and you’re tempted to give them a cookie or lollipop to help them feel better, think of trying one of these strategies instead.
1. Physical activity
For many children, physical activity can help them organize and regulate themselves. Often a little running, jumping, yoga, or dancing can result in an improved mood.
Calming music can be relaxing for both children and adults. Explore how music may influence your child’s emotional state.
I’ve worked with several children who soothe themselves by coloring. You can observe their body tone soften just by the act of coloring.
4. Creative activities
For other children, coloring might not have any effect on their mood or tone, but perhaps a more creative activity might. Drawing, painting, building, or pretending can be important outlets of expression as well as ways of organizing and calming the mind and body.
If reading is not a struggle or an emotionally-charged activity, it can be a very calming activity for many. If your child is not old enough to read on his own and does not enjoy looking at books by himself, then reading a book together, could be a shared activity that he finds soothing.
6. Cooking together
This can be not only a fun way to connect with your child but also a way to teach your child valuable cooking skills and healthy eating habits.
7. Calming down space
Rather than a time-out space to go after some misbehavior, children can also benefit from a designated space to go to calm down and reorganize themselves before they hit that point of no return. You can designate a corner of a room, a soft, comfy chair, or even an indoor tent as a special quiet space for this purpose.
While you have to be careful about over-use, they definitely have their place in helping children calm themselves.
One of my personal favorites! Playing with playdough offers both a creative outlet and a motor activity combined into one. Many a mood has been improved after a little time with dough.
Maybe the most obvious and potentially quickest fix when your child is upset. Hugs, kisses, and back rubs can often do the trick for many children. Other children may respond better to deeper pressure or brushing techniques which may require some instruction from an occupational therapist to be used effectively.
Want research-backed tips on helping your child develop a healthy relationship with food? Check out Maryann’s book: How to Raise a Mindful Eater: 8 Powerful Principles for Transforming Your Child’s Relationship with food.