As a new Mom walking around a lake with a friend, each of us pushing our teething, toddler sons in strollers, I was horrified when my friend repeatedly used pieces of candy to soothe and distract her son, who kept trying to buck out of the stroller like a wild salmon. We were both so desperate for exercise and conversation that I half-forgave her, but remembered worrying about her son’s baby teeth as well as thinking, Wow, she shouldn’t use candy or food as a substitute for getting his other needs met. Not a good precedent.
Flash forward fifteen years. I am on a train zooming away from home, heading out on a rare two-day business trip, delighted to be alone for a while and escape the demands of the domestic scene. Freedom! Well, sort of. Just then, my middle-school daughter starts texting me.
Mom, are you there?
Mom! I don’t feel good ”
I call her cell. She is teary, unsure, overwhelmed with angst. Should she really have quit soccer? (Everyone else seems to have some extreme extracurricular pursuit; now she is adrift). She doesn’t feel at home at the middle school yet. Her teacher is mean and her cello string is broken (I didn’t fix it). What’s wrong with me? she asks, in so many words. Vague pubescent emotions are sweeping over her like storm clouds across a vast prairie. We both mourn the clarity of her childhood mind. The hormones are here.
“Oh sweetie,” I coo, trying to reassure and envelope her with warmth — a voice hug. “You’re going to be just fine. You’re okay.” Confession: I don’t believe in any of her problems. To me, it’s all about her current state of mind, her emotions. What she needs, I calculate quickly, is a change of scene. A hug would be good too, but I’m not there to give her one.
“Why don’t you do something to get your mind off things — how about –” Here I stop myself. I was about to say “chocolate ice cream.” And the next few ideas — hot cocoa, a cookie — were just as bad. I had an overwhelming urge to tell her to EAT A TREAT. It was so simple! The sensuous chocolatey swell on her tongue would be an immediate circuit breaker, banishing all ruminating to the sidelines. The perk from the sugar wouldn’t hurt either. All would be well.
But I’ve read too much about how we shouldn’t use food to solve emotional problems. It can lead to eating disorders, binge eating, obesity. So I pushed myself to think of something different, fast. But the next thing my mind leapt to was “bake some cookies!” Hmmm, a little more active, but the net result — EAT A TREAT! — was the same. I pushed myself, again. The pause on the phone was growing thick.
“Sweetie? How about a nice hot bath?” Calgon, take me away! Ugh. My comfort instincts seemed to be tangled up in commercial airwaves. Didn’t I have anything better to offer?
“I don’t want to take a bath.”
“OK. Well how about reading a book to get your mind off things?”
“I already read earlier today.”
“OK, well how about talking to your Dad? Where is he anyway?”
“I don’t know. Mom!”
“Sweetie, I have to go pretty soon. I’m on the train here.” I didn’t really have to go, but I was running out of ideas. I hated not being able to solve her problems or make her feel better.
“Sweetheart, you’re going to be ok. I promise.”
“You don’t understand, Mom. You don’t get it.”
“Yes I do. I was a teenager once too. Trust me, it gets better. You’re going to be okay. Remember when you felt this way two weeks ago and then the next day was a really fun day? These emotions are kind of like the weather. They never stay the same. Hang in there. I love you. I’m sending you a big hug over the phone…”
I ramble on. Nothing I say seems to provide the “aha” moment that I hope to give her. But then a wonderful thing happens. She becomes bored. With me!
“Okay Mom. Mom, I’ve got to go. I love you.”
Phew! I did it — or maybe she did — or maybe it was just the cat waltzing by. A favorite TV show firing up in the background. Who knows. The point was: no ice cream or cookies were needed!
I’m not saying it’s easy or that there’s a one-size-fits-all substitution for comfort food. But try to become aware of whether you, like me, are tempted to offer a food treat instead of the something else your child is whining, crying, fidgeting, or fighting for. It might be important to try, even if you don’t succeed, and even if it feels really uncomfortable because you don’t have “the answer” right away. Food is so immediate, and vague uncomfortable feelings can take hours, weeks, even years to unravel.
It’s unbearable to watch your child suffer, I know! But if you can give your child the gift of uncomfortable patience, of puzzling over what they really want or need instead of swapping in a piece of cake, then your child will begin to learn to solve their problems head on, instead of stuffing their feelings with food.
What do you think? Are you constantly tempted to use food to comfort your child, like I did? Or is this not a problem for you?
Photo courtesy of Mommyof4Ruggies
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