Surprising Benefit to Teaching Kids Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence skills: the antidote to emotional eating?

Posted Sep 18, 2013

I recently read the NYT article entitled Can Emotional Intelligence Be Taught? by Jennifer Kahn. I applaud the efforts of Garfield Elementary and other schools around the nation that are dedicating time and effort to teaching kids emotional intelligence skills. In the article, the author mentions the many benefits. Teaching emotional intelligence skills can lead to less bullying, academic success and stronger relationships. Also, being able to manage your feelings is important to learning, attention and memory.  I can only imagine how challenging it would be to fit in and fund these programs in the schools. 

I would add another critical benefit that was not mentioned in the article. Teaching kids emotional regulations skill could play a key role in mitigating or slowing down the rising number of children who struggle with overeating. Obviously the problem is complex and mulitdimensional and needs many points of intervention. But emotional eating is one important aspect. At this juncture, kids witness a strong message through the media and by watching people around them that it is "okay" to soothe and comfort themselves with food. For many kids and adults, food is their number one go-to option for stress management.

In a recent of study of 437 children aged 5-12 in the journal Appetite, research found a link between stress and kids eating an unhealthy diet. When dealing with a problem, kids ate more foods with sugar and fat. The researchers indicate that this could lead to an unhealthy weight and future problems with emotional eating. They suggest teaching kids stress reduction techniques, problems solving and how to verbalize their need for help instead of seeking comfort and solace in food. These are all essentially emotional intelligence skills.

I often see what happens when people haven't learn healthy ways to cope with feelings. They often turn to food for help. Unfortunately, food does work quickly to alter one's feelings. The emotional eaters I work with in my office often talk about the root of stress eating showing up very early in their lives. Eating is one of the only options they knew or were taught for coping with uncomfortable feelings.

Well intentioned parents often unknowingly teach kids to use food as an emotional band aid. For example, a caregiver may hand a child a cookie when they fall down to stop tears. Or, a parent may feed a child ice cream to quickly quiet a tantrum.  But emotional eating isn't just the product of parenting. The media also reinforces using food to feel better (ex. chocolate=bliss). There are many other factors that feed into it too. The bottom line is that without these early emotional regulation skills, people can have stellar knowledge of nutrition but be completely unable to make healthy choices when they are stressed or overwhelmed. They fall back time and again to using food to cope with feelings.

On the other hand, kids who grow up with a strong foundation of being able to regulate feelings through words and healthy action will be less likely to turn feelings off or numb out through comfort eating. In their emotional tool belt, they have healthier options lined up.

For adult stress eaters who missed early opportunities for learning stress management skills, I wrote step-by-step instructions about how you can turn this around in my new book, EatQ. EatQ may remind you of EI or EQ because it is a term for what I call an emotionally intelligent eater. The book provides some helpful answers for stress eaters. It's also a great tool for parents who want to teach their children to be emotionally intelligent eaters by being strong role models. So even if your child's school doesn't have the emotional intelligence programs yet in school, you can still give them this information, Remember, it's never too late to learn emotional intelligence skills for a healthier and happier life for you or your children! 

TAKE A FREE QUIZ: Are you an Emotionally Intelligent Eater?

Dr. Susan Albers is a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic and the author of six books on mindful eating including Eat.Q: Unlock the Weight Loss Power of Emotional Intelligence. She has been quoted in the New York Times, Self, O Magazine, Shape, Fitness and on the Dr. Oz show.  Buy EatQ now for free bonuses!