Causes of difficulties with food behaviours

What messages did you receive about food as a child?

Were you ….

Shown that food was energy?

Encouraged to listen to your internal satisfaction?

Taught that certain foods were bad?

Encouraged to eat everything on your plate?

Punished if you did not finish everything?

Always surrounded by a parent on a diet?

Treated with food as a reward?

Punished with restricted food for poor behaviour?

Did you have treat days? 

Were some foods banned?

Did you have a parent with disordered eating? 

Our behaviours around food can be affected by MANY different factors, and this article does not touch on all of them. It is just an opportunity to consider the many things that can cause aversions, fussy behaviours or different attitudes to food.

Our food behaviours can be affected by:

  • Messages we received as a child
  • Commentary from adults or older siblings at mealtimes
  • Learnt behaviour, some children have learnt that if they refuse something they will be offered a food of higher value
  • Sensory needs – for instance children with sensory processing disorder or autism may have difficulty with some textures, temperatures and tastes
  • ADHD – children with ADHD often seek out dopamine rich foods such as carbohydrates and sugar
  • Trauma – experiencing trauma (including abuse and neglect) can influence our food behaviours, attitudes and beliefs

Food behaviours and trauma

Studies have shown that individuals who have experienced trauma have an increased likelihood of engaging in disordered eating. Studies have also shown that the earlier the trauma occurs in the life the more intense outcomes may be. Eating disorders are not focused on just food, but are a way that an individual can exert control in their life. If events occur that make a child feel powerless they may exert control over food to manage feelings of embarrassment, discomfort, shame, hopelessness, fear and disgust. Sometimes, this may also be coupled with other control behaviours such as non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI). There are also strong links between PTSD and controlling eating behaviours such as bulimia, binge eating and anorexia

Professionals and families should be aware that a child or adolescent who has experienced trauma may use eating behaviours as:

  • A method of self-control
  • A coping mechanism
  • Self-protection
  • An escape from uncomfortable or distressing emotions

Trauma causes a dys-regulation to the nervous system which means an individual who has experienced abuse, neglect or witnessed trauma will find it challenging to regulate their emotions. Eating is perceived as a nurturing behaviour and as such children can perceive eating as an escape or it is the only positive memory that they recall from a challenging childhood. Conversely, a child who was punished by having food restricted can be fearful that food will ‘run out’ and not be able to stop as they have not developed clear feelings of satiety. Children have lost trust in food, where it will come from, and if they will have some again. Further, a child who has experienced trauma may find it challenging to manage carbohydrate and sugar intake. Studies have found that early trauma impacts the way that our bodies digest and process sugar.

Working with a trained dietician or nutritionist, who has knowledge of the impact of trauma on the body, in conjunction with therapy,  is an important part of supporting children.


Want to learn more? 

Are you looking for a deeper understanding of child mental health? Our Level 4 Child and Adolescent Mental Health Coaching Diploma takes you into an in depth dive of child mental health and how you can support.  You can join our Level 4 training (here).


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