Children’s emotional eating tied to parents

Controlling parents who are slow to respond to their children’s needs may be fuelling emotional eating in their children who turn instead to food for comfort.

The reasons why people emotionally eat will come under the microscope today at the Psychological Society of Ireland annual conference in Kilkenny where clinical psychologist Dr Jonathan Egan will discuss how parental behaviour can have a lifelong bearing on a child’s relationship with food.

An online study carried out by Dr Egan and lead author clinical psychologist Róisín Finnegan found different parenting styles influenced whether a child had a positive or negative relationship with food.

Specifically, the research showed:

- The daughters of authoritarian parents with poor responsiveness fared worst in terms of comfort eating and were most likely to put on weight in the long term;

- The daughters of “laissez faire” parents — low control, highly responsive — fared better;

- Girls with an authoritative but responsive mother and a “laissez faire” or laid back father showed the lowest levels of emotional eating and had a lower body mass index in the long-term.

A total of 550 people, the majority women, participated in the study.

Dr Egan, who works with patients undergoing cardiac rehabilitation in the Mater Hospital and lectures at NUI Galway, said emotional eating is common in the population he treats but he wanted to see if it occurred across the wider community.

He said strict parents who put their own needs ahead of their children were “blocking” their children’s natural care-seeking behaviour to the extent that their children didn’t feel they could express their emotions.

“Their emotions become dis-regulated and they learn not to become a burden.

“Instead of expressing their emotions, they withdraw and use food as a soothing agent, literally swallowing their emotions,” he said.

Emotional eating was storing up health problems down the line due to weight gain, obesity and its impact on health, yet it was not an issue addressed in health programmes, Dr Egan said.

On a separate topic, clinical psychologist Clare Kambamettu, who works in adult mental health services, will present a paper on whether staff working in intellectual disability services are willing to report sexual assaults perpetrated by service users to the police.

Ms Kambamettu spoke to staff in three intellectual disability services and found nine on 10 would have to be “almost 100% certain” the assault occurred before reporting it.

She said historically, staff were “naturally very protective” of those with intellectual disability although there had been “an acknowledgement in recent years that those with an intellectual disability may also have the capacity to plan and carry out a sexual assault”.

She said that capacity had to be assessed and reacted to appropriately for the sake of both the suspected perpetrator who would otherwise be “assumed guilty” and could have restrictive measures applied or may continue to offend without consequences, and for the sake of the victim’s rights.

Ms Kambamettu said those working in intellectual disability services needed “very specific training” to deal with sexual assault situations as well as “very clear policies” to follow in the event of a suspected sexual assault.

Her study is the first Irish study to analyse the attitudes of staff to reporting sexual assaults perpetrated by service users.


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