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ice-cream for being upset?

Posted by on Sep 2, 2010 in Blog Posts | 20 comments


We were on the road, and tired of McDonald’s and Subway. (Road-trips were the only time I was allowed to eat fast food and I relished it as a kid. I am a little more lenient, but we don’t often do fast food at home, so looking forward to a Happy Meal is a nice way to help with hours and hours in the car…)

Anyway, there was a Whole Foods near our hotel, and we decided to eat dinner there. M has recently really gotten into seaweed salad so we chose that, and checked out their hot and cold bar. M chose mashed potatoes, zucchini, roasted peppers and onions (they were in with the brats which she didn’t want) and rice. I had a cold salad with the works, chicken, corn, eggs, lettuce, beets etc…
We were going to share. I asked M to hold her bowl with two hands. I reminded her a few times, and that it was easy to drop. I also had a few non-perishables so I had a basket, my bowl and couldn’t figure out where to check out. It was really annoying. One guy said one line, we waited, I stood there and next I hear is wailing. I turn around and M was trying a zucchini and dropped her food on the floor. I am ashamed to admit I was not immediately super-cool Mommy and spat out, “I told you to hold it with two hands!” This of course did not help, and the cashier thought I was a monster, and kept saying, “It’s OK Mommy, you can get more food.” I was more irritated with the system, with having been stuck in a car all day, with juggling a basket, food, a pre-schooler, waiting in lines…
Anyhoo, I calmed down, reassured M that it was not a big deal (“I want Dad-deee!!!”) got her a new bowl of food and went to another line. We came back for my bowl of salad that I had abandoned and the cashier handed M a bowl of ice-cream! Vanilla with chocolate sauce. “Here Sweetie, It’s OK!”
I know she meant well, and I didn’t really care (though we had had ice-cream at lunch) and I joked that I was going to drop food more often if I got free ice-cream.
It just fascinated me that the impulse was to soothe her with ice-cream, that she didn’t ask me first. That the ice-cream would make it all OK.
It didn’t hurt, and we went on to enjoy a nice meal. (Though I was also miffed that I bought bottled water only to see that they had free cold water in the dining area.) Oh well!
What do you think? Were you soothed with food as a child? Was/is that a hard habit to break? Do you ever use food to feel better now? (I know food can lift my mood sometimes.) Have you learned to “use” food or other means to soothe in healthy ways?
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20 Comments

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  1. familyfeedingdynamics

    CAmilla,
    You are so nicely tuned-in to him and helping him explore and learn about his feelings, managing emotions etc. He's a lucky boy! Isn't the temperament thing AMAZING! Could you tell in utero? Some moms say they act different even before birth! Kids are different, and having one feeding model really helps, Trying to feed kids in the same family differently because of size or temperament is really tricky and usually doesn't work. I think I'm going to go have a popsicle! :)

  2. Camilla

    The summer he was 2 1/2 (& some language delay) was the big one for getting lots of scraped knees and crying that I judged to be genuine pain, for which I handed out popsicles.

    This summer (3 1/2) he's tripping less, but doing a lot of deliberate falls and crashes, for attention, and I am giving out fewer popsicles, and less sympathy. His language has caught up to age level, and I'm hearing a lot of "I hurt myself" (usually spurious) and "a popsicle would make me feel better."

    If he's throwing a tantrum, and he pulls himself together enough to tearfully beg for a popsicle, I take that as a sign that he's got enough of a grip that I should offer him a distraction, or some way to compromise and save face (offering to sit and talk about a pet subject is a good one). Last time I was rigid about waiting out a full-fledged tantrum, it took over an hour.

    He's a high strung kid – I truly don't believe that his tantrums are manipulative in nature – especially since he can get a popsicle for the asking much of the time (he will also turn down an offered popsicle sometimes). Also, he's got a younger brother (just a year old) who is as different in temperament as children can possibly be, and *that* was obvious by the time #2 was a week old.

  3. familyfeedingdynamics

    interesting. We know that infants given sugar solution feel pain less (shots and circumcisions.)As he gets older, and gets more verbal skills, I wonder if you'll be able to to transition to other methods for soothing or distraction? Is he also asking for them for emotional upset? Be curious and see what happens. If he otherwise eats a good variety, has family meals and structure, is allowed to have "forbidden foods" in that context then it's probably working for your family. Popsicles are yummy!

  4. Camilla

    I very routinely hand out the little 1/2oz popsicles to my toddler son, if he's upset over a minor injury. I also give them out just for the asking, if the weather is warm.

    They're really ridiculously effective at getting his attention off his injury and making the screaming stop. I figure if it ever doesn't work, then it's time to head to the ER.

    I am prone to blood sugar lows, especially after an adrenalin release (and my husband has an all out vagal reflex in response to seeing his own blood) so it doesn't shock me that a toddler with a scraped knee really does have a need for something sugary.

  5. familyfeedingdynamics

    Moo,
    What a fascinating story. So many things here. Only being allowed the food to probably control behavior? You were restricted, not allowed to learn to manage those foods, tacitly encouraged to overeat when you were allowed. You were slim then, not anymore. (Did you know that 80% of adults who are "obese or overweight" were normal or underweight as children? I've never had Totinos… I remember Chef Boyardee when my parents went out and being really excited about that…

  6. Moo

    I can recall when I was about 9 or 10 years old, that whenever my parents would have a grown-up party at our house and I was expected to greet everyone sweetly and then spend the rest of the evening in my room, that I would be given a special treat for dinner. It was only on those evenings that I was offered this food, and it was (I believe) to encourage me to go along with spending so many hours before bedtime alone in my room, so as not to bother the grown-ups, while I could hear the party going on and all the fun everyone was having (pieces of conversation, laughter, etc.).

    What was the "special" food? An entire Totino's frozen pizza. This was over 35 years ago and I was very thin at the time (not thin any more), and I think the pizza was probably meant to serve four people. But there I was, 9 years old and eating the entire thing for dinner. I can even remember early arriving guests commenting on what a good appetite I had.

  7. familyfeedingdynamics

    Jaed,
    I wonder if you were ever restricted, food-insecure or dieted as a child? Kds who have been restricted tend to eat more w/stress, just like adults who have dietede do. Kids who haven't been restricted tend to eat less. It may be why some people eat more and some lose their appetite w/ depression. I too would rather eat salty foods than sweet. During residency, my treat was susi and sake after clinic. I loved it, though the small , warm bottle of sake may have been more soothing than the food. I find soup to be very soothing…

  8. familyfeedingdynamics

    Clio,
    when you're a hungry kid, do you think it makes it hard to tell what your body is telling you? Constant hunger may make it hard to do the whole psychosomatization differentiation? Hunger, anxiety about being fed? I imagine that eating then, at least temporarily would ease that anxiety… I imagine bribing with food would work w/m. We're w/ my folks and I've seen themdo it twice. Once to get her to leave the library where she was happy playing they told her they had to leave to buy icecream, and once w/ a sucker to get her to go go the bank. They still don't get it…

  9. jaed

    Hmmm. This whole idea of soothing being upset with food is strange to me, because when I'm upset I don't want to eat. Even if I was hungry before whatever happened to upset me, I can't eat until I feel calmer.

    I don't remember this happening to me, but I'm sure there are children who have food thrust at them in an attempt to soothe them, and the pressure to "Eat this!" just makes matters worse.

    But I suspect the counterperson wasn't so much trying to soothe her as trying to apologize with something she assumed M would like. (WHich is interesting in itself – our assumption is that everyone likes ice cream! A sweet thing is a treat for anyone! While for some people it might be a mouthful of that interesting salad, or a bite of Jamaican chicken, or something else with a flavor you like that isn't sweet. But sweets are seen as the Universal Yum.)

  10. clio

    I wasn't soothed with food per se, but I was hungry through much of my growing up, so food needs and emotional needs were not as clear cut as they might have been. Using food to soothe myself (or more appropriately heading for food when I was upset) was a very hard habit to break, and a habit that is still easy to slip into. Now I can occasionally, successfully, use food to soothe myself in a healthy way, i.e. mindfully with intention.

    I just have to say, I am shocked and appalled that a person would offer a stranger's child ice cream. It is so intrusive and inappropriate.

    On the other side, I agree that what you do most often is what counts. I have only used food as a bribe twice in my sons 4 years. And both times, I was totally desperate. Both times it also worked beautifully, because he knew he better "get while the getting was good." :) As I think of it, I wouldn't use food as a bribe with my daughter. I am pretty sure I would be sorry… In any case, if YOU decided to get a bowl of ice cream this once, then more power to you!

  11. familyfeedingdynamics

    I couldn't have said it better!
    Thanks!

  12. ila

    [My comment seems to have been eaten up, so this is a re-write. My apologies if you get this twice].

    It is undeniable that there is an emotional side to food and eating. I don't think this is negative in itself. Sometimes, when we don't know how to deal with our emotions, we may feel that a bowl of ice cream will make us feel better. Or a nap. Or a cup of tea. Or a drink. Or a long walk. Or some peace and quiet. Or a conversation with a good friend. Or some shopping. Or some journaling, knitting, gardening… These are all pleasurable activities, and I don't think any of them are inherently bad: it does make sense to seek pleasure when we are experiencing unpleasant feelings. The problem begins when the *only* way we know how to deal with our emotions is to eat ourselves into numbness (ditto excessive drinking, overexercising, etc.) Or when we start eating *before* even realizing that we are doing it to supress our frustration, sadness or boredom. For a long time, I used food to soothe myself without being aware of it. Like many binge eaters, I just thought I was exceptionally greedy. Now, I make the effort of "sitting with my emotions" first and trying to identify what it is that I am feeling. Sometimes I realize that what I really need is some exercise, some sleep, or even some fun!

    If we teach children to resort to food whenever they experience something unpleasant, we are providing them with a very poor emotional equipment to deal with all the problems life is gonna throw at them. I learned to soothe myself with food at a very early age, and I'm still trying to "unlearn" at 28!

  13. familyfeedingdynamics

    Jessica. I hear you. Somehow traveling with kids (and boy is it different now with car seats…) is a different beast. I have been handing out plastic garage sale toys and candy at fairly regular intervals. I think doing your best to be consistent at home most of the time is the key.
    You are way ahead of the curve in that you are AWARE of the possibilities. I think you're going to do fine! We all have lapses, and we just do our best, be aware, try to work on things when we see a problem, observe, be curious and gentle with our kids AND with ourselves! Thanks for sharing!

  14. familyfeedingdynamics

    heather. I think there is a difference between celebrating with a nice meal at a restaurant if the experience is the treat vs. celebrating or mourning with a tub of ice-cream that is inhaled while standing in the kitchen. In other words, I'm not sure that going out for a meal to celebrate is such a bad thing. What do you think?

  15. Jessica

    I hate the idea of rewarding with food and avoid doing it explicitly… but recently on a treat-filled two week vacation (camping in the mountains + a rental cottage at the beach) I caught myself doing it. My normally mellow fellow doesn't enjoy car rides, can't nap in the car and generally had a tough time sleeping on the trip…so, I caught myself saying crazy things to try to convince him to take a nap or relax in the car. For example, I caught myself saying one day, "After lunch we'll clean up and read a book and then you'll take a nap. When you wake up we'll bake cookies, but only if you really sleep, ok?" I immediately thought to myself, "What– cookies if you nap? That's insane and confusing on many levels."

    The other instance I caught myself doing that was another afternoon recently (post vacation) we were planning on baking a cake together and he was having some trouble cleaning up his room. I said something like, "Well, if you put up your toys, we won't be able to bake the cake." I didn't mean it as a specific reward type thing, more of a "we can't do B until A is finished", but afterward I thought it might have sounded like a reward to him.

    In general, though, the "oh you're upset have some ice cream" reaction would never occur to me. And I'm hoping to avoid the whole "rewards for good behavior" dynamic as he grows older (trying to build intrinsic motivation here). But we'll see… maybe I'm fooling myself.

  16. Heather

    Like the other ladies, I don't know that I was ever soothed with food, but it was ALWAYS a reward. Good report card, good behavior, birthday, anniversary, milestone, and it was out to dinner. Although I try not to, it's very easy for me to fall into the same pattern with my girls.

  17. familyfeedingdynamics

    Quiet Dreams, my big reward was a trip to Red Lobster (we NEVER ate out for the most part…) I remember being in 5th grade, my friends were all getting cash for good grades, I was pretty pious at the time and said, "no, I don't want money, I should get good grades because I want to." My folks offered red Lobster. It did the trick, I got all As, and then felt cheated when I saw the sign that kids under 12 ate free! I still remember falling asleep on the red plastic bench…

  18. familyfeedingdynamics

    loveashley. I thought it was weird too! I bet she broke about a dozen rules… I also agree there is great potential harm in using food to stuff, numb or deal with feelings. I guess I dropped a big bomb at the end. I think there is an emotional connection with food that is undeniable, and there can be ways to derive pleasure, calm from food on occasion? I will develop this idea more fully. For example, often my afternoon coffee ad chocolate break is a way tp relax and treat myself, I am not necessarily hungry or thirsty, but I take the time to enjoy it and relax. The notion of awareness of what you are doing and mindfulness is the key I think.

  19. Quiet Dreams

    I don't remember being soothed with food, but after every report card came out, we got to go to Baskin Robbins for ice cream "if" we had good grades (we always did). Rewarding with food was a big thing with my folks.

  20. loveashley.net

    I would feel weird trying to give a child ice cream in front of the mother without asking. I mean, what if the kid was allergic to dairy or something.

    I think soothing feelings with food is potentially harmful and dangerous. It is best to try to find other ways.