My 8 year-old daughter sneaks food when I’m not looking. We have snacks for all of the family in a high cupboard and I often find her stealing these snacks and hiding them in her room and other places around the house. Sometimes she will even just sit at the table and quickly eat them before I come back in the room. Because she’s a little kid, she doesn’t hide the evidence very well. I’m concerned about what might be going on with her. Any insights or suggestions you might have are greatly appreciated.
You’re right that there is something going on with her. Obviously, without meeting her, I can’t definitively say what that might be. However, I can give you some areas to consider and ways you might approach her.
Food is a powerful way to change our emotional state. If we’re sad, we eat to feel better. If we’re happy, we eat to feel even happier. Food is powerful and is easy to access. Most of us discover its powerful mood-altering properties on accident as children and have difficult unlearning those patterns as we get into adulthood.
Now, I have no idea if your daughter is using food as a way to deal with emotions, but usually when children (and adults, for that matter) are secretive and hide food, they usually have some shame around using food in an unhealthy way. She may also be hiding it because she isn’t supposed to be eating it, so it’s important to understand what the hiding might be about.
When you approach her, don’t corner her and set her up to lie by asking her questions to which you already know the answer. Instead, tell her that you know she’s been taking food without permission and hiding it and you need to talk with her about it. The main discussion you want to have isn’t about whether or not she’s doing this behavior, but, rather, trying to understand why she’s doing this.
You can reassure your daughter that it’s normal to use food to deal with uncomfortable or strange feelings. Make it safe for her to explore how she might be using food in unhealthy ways. Because she’s 8 years old, she won’t have a lot of insight about this, so don’t make it a huge deal; instead, look for ways that she might be showing some struggles. Your observations of her with siblings, friends, at school, and other places will help you dial in where she might be struggling.
Naturally, it’s good to place limits on her access to the snacks, so make sure to set good boundaries there and let her know that it’s not OK to have free access to these snacks if she can’t control herself.
The food is just a symptom of something bigger going on for her, so don’t make this about the food and punish her accordingly. It will be more productive to use it as a chance to better understand where she is struggling and seek to help her find healthy relief.
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples in all stages of their relationships. The opinions stated in this article are solely his and not those of St. George News.
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