Self-regulation, in relation to food and eating*, is the process whereby we listen our bodies' cues; eating because we are hungry and stopping because we are full.
Put simply, our bodies send signals to our brains which the brain translates into actions (the choice to eat or stop eating). This is actually an extremely complex and subtle system .This physiological mechanism is hard-wired; think of a tiny baby crying because she is hungry, drinking her milk because her body is telling her to, then finishing her feed because she feels that she has had enough.
It might seem odd, then, to talk about it being a gift you can give your child. How can we give our children something that they are already born with? The answer is that our job is to nurture their ability to self-regulate because if we don't, we can block it.
Children's ability to self-regulate can be blocked in the following ways:
- Failure to provide regular, appropriate meals so that children don't have the opportunity to get used to a healthy rhythm of feeling hungry then feeling full throughout the day.
- Over-protecting children from hunger so that they are given food before their bodies signal that they need it.
- Putting pressure on children to eat so that they are eating because of the adults around them.
- Giving children messages that confuse food with feelings so that children learn to eat for emotional reasons.
Teaching your child to self-regulate will make it less likely that they will struggle with obesity or eating disorders when they are older. It will contribute to a positive relationship with food that can last a lifetime.
Four things you can do today to help your child self-regulate:
We educate our children about what constitutes healthy foods, we need to educate them about how to eat them in a way that is psychologically healthy. Just like giving children key messages about nutrition, messages about self-regulation need to be delivered with a light touch, as a normal part of everyday life.
Chat to your child about how our brains and bodies work, explore online together (This is a good resource for informing yourself about how appetite works, but I would avoid looking at it with children because of the content about dieting) .Use age-appropriate books for children about the body. I love See Inside Your Body by Usborne.
The most powerful influence on how a child eats is how the adults around them eat. 'Do as I say, not as I do' just doesn't work. If you want your child to learn how to self-regulate, demonstrate it for them again and again. For example, you could reflect out-loud that you are choosing to leave a couple of mouthfuls of your meal as your tummy is telling you that you have had enough ( especially hard for the waste-haters out there like me...) .
Conversely, you could say that you're going to help yourself to some seconds because, even though you have eaten all your food, your tummy still feels hungry. Bear in mind that it's good to show children that you may need to wait a short while before you can tell if you need more food or not as it can take 15 - 20 minutes for your body's signals to tell your brain that you are full.
Think before you speak
How you talk about food is really important - if you talk about eating in a way that is emotionally laden, your children will learn from you to associate food and feelings. This is a significant cause of eating for emotional rather than physiological reasons.
If your children think that it's normal to reward yourself with a cookie or berate yourself for a second helping of dessert, they are more likely to grow up seeing food as something that is connected to our feelings of self-worth.
It's great to be enthusiastic about food and to enjoy it with your child - I'm not advocating a view of food simply as fuel - food can be joyous - it's just gets unhealthy when it gets tied up with our feelings about ourselves.
Let your child make their own decisions
Not about what food they are given, that's up to you. But about how much of it they eat. This is what Ellyn Satter dubbed DOR (Division of Responsibility in feeding) and is a vital concept to understand if you want your child to grow up learning how to self-regulate.
Every time you push your child to try 'one more bite' or go for that clean plate, you are actually hampering their ability to self-regulate. By letting them learn through experience that leaving food can result in hunger, they are learning to tune in to their bodies.
*NB: Self-regulation is used in a wider context to talk about impulse-inhibition and the internal control of emotion and attention. I am using it specifically to refer to the process of making decisions to eat based on physiological rather than external cues.