10 strategies for soothing children without using food

by Kathleen Cuneo, Ph.D.

photographer, Stacy BaswellAs parents we need to be mindful of not only what foods we choose to offer our children, but also of what patterns and associations between food and emotion we are establishing. Patterns set in childhood can be carried forward into adulthood and possibly lead to problems with weight management or disordered eating.

When our children are upset, it's natural for us to want to soothe them. Often, by habit and by memory our own childhood experiences, we may be tempted to soothe with food. Don't get me wrong, soothing with food is not always a bad thing. I want my children to have positive emotional associations with foods. But it's the overall pattern that's important, and food should never be the only option for comfort.

Here are some other things to consider:
Negative emotions are not always a bad thing. They provide an opportunity for learning and for greater understanding. The goal isn't that your child will never experience negative emotions, but rather that they'll develop skills that will enable them to be soothed and eventually to soothe themselves and cope with negative experiences.

Your parenting toolbox can be filled with tools other than fruit snacks and sweets to help your child handle their emotions. Know that no one strategy will work all the time or for everybody. You’ll need to observe patterns in what seems to work for your individual child at particular times.

Try these non-food strategies

Physical activity: For many children, physical activity can help them organize and regulate themselves. Often a little running, jumping, yoga, or dancing can result in an improved mood.

Music: Calming music can be relaxing for both children and adults. Explore how music may influence your child's emotional state.

Coloring: I've worked with several children who soothe themselves by coloring. You can observe their body tone soften just by the act of coloring.

Creative activities: Drawing, painting, building, or pretending can be important outlets of expression as well as ways of organizing and calming the mind and body.

Reading: If reading is not a struggle or an emotionally-charged activity, it can be a very calming activity for many. If your child is not old enough, read a book together.

Cooking together: This can be not only a fun way to connect with your child, but also a way to teach your child valuable cooking skills and healthy eating habits.

Create a "calming down" space: Children can benefit from a designated space to go to calm down and reorganize themselves before they hit that point of no-return. Designate a corner of a room, a soft, comfy chair, or even an indoor tent as a special quiet space for this purpose.

TV and movies: While you have to be careful about over-use, they definitely have their place in helping children calm themselves.

Play dough: Playing with play dough offers both a creative outlet and a motor activity combined into one. Many a mood has been improved after a little time with dough.

Touch: Hugs, kisses and back rubs can often do the trick for many children. Other children may respond better to deeper pressure or brushing techniques which may require some instruction from an occupational therapist to be used effectively.

Kathleen Cuneo, Ph.D. is a psychologist, parent coach, and mom. Her mission is to empower parents to find their own parenting voice and develop strong connections with their children.

Copyright © Kathleen Cuneo. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org. Photo credits: Stacy Braswell, Jose Manuel Gelpi Diaz, Angela Farley and Jaimie D. Travis.