Have you caught your child sneaking and hiding candy or other “treats”? Maybe you’ve found candy wrappers under your child’s pillow or come across a hidden stash in their closet. This can trigger feelings of frustration, confusion and concern.
The knee-jerk reaction (trust me, I know!) is to scold your child for going behind your back. But the truth is, sneaking candy, cookies and other foods is normal behavior for kids as their need for control and individuality develops. Kids will do this on occasion as a way of asserting their independence. Concern only comes into play if food sneaking becomes a regular occurrence. So, what do you do if your child is sneaking candy (or other foods) regularly?
Try your best to stay calm!
I know, easier said than done, right? Bringing negative attention and shaming your child for this behavior will only propagate the problem. The most important thing to do is to take a deep breath, and calmly address the behavior in a loving way, with understanding and curiosity. Make sure your child knows they are not in trouble and that they are allowed to have candy without having to sneak it! The best way to communicate to your child that the food they are sneaking is not forbidden is by practicing food-neutral language. This helps to take the appeal of the candy down a notch especially if your child feels like this food is scarce, restricted or forbidden in any way.
There are many reasons why kids start sneaking food and candy. The next step is to get curious and dig deeper into understanding why your child is doing so.
Be curious without being judgmental
The best thing to do is show empathy, and gently questions without being judgmental. When you decide to address it make sure both you and your child are calm and happy. Try saying something like “When I was in your room this morning, I noticed candy wrappers on the ground in your closet. You are not in trouble for this, but it is something that we should talk about and figure out together.” Keep your tone of voice gentle and loving, this will help your child feel safe opening up to you about it.
Try to keep questions open-ended, being careful not to frame them in an accusatory way to prevent feelings of embarrassment and shame. Give them space to respond to you, letting them explain in their own words why they are sneaking candy. If they are having a hard time finding words in the moment, gently offer them possible reasons. For example, “Is your tummy still hungry before bed?” or “do you feel like you are not allowed to have candy as often as you would like to?”.
After you have gotten to the root of why your child is sneaking candy, show empathy and validate their feeling about why they are doing it.
Reasons why they might be sneaking food
The feeling of food scarcity is one of the most common reasons why kids start to sneak food and candy. Scarcity feelings start to pop up when a child feels like a certain food is restricted or highly limited, which then increases their preference for that food even more! The same concept is true for adults. Going on restrictive diets that cut out or reduce certain types of food will only make you want it more! Of course, no parent intentionally pushes this mental battle of restriction on their kids.
Here are more examples of why your child may be sneaking candy (or other food):
- Your child may simply be more hungry than normal and going through a growth spurt
- They may be eating for reasons other than physical hunger such as habit, emotional eating, or eating out of boredom
- Maybe certain foods or amounts of food at meals and snack have been restricted by parents or other caregivers
- It could be that the frequency that sweets and treats are offered to your child feels highly limited to them
Make positive shifts in the feeding dynamic at home
No matter what the reason is for your child sneaking food, if it is addressed promptly and, in a loving, compassionate way, things can most certainly turn around! The number one mission I have as a pediatric dietitian is to help parents nurture a positive relationship with food in their children (and themselves!).
Begin to change the feeding dynamic at home to one that empowers children to eat food based on their own internal cues (without parental interference) vs. trying to micromanage their intake! Satter’s Division of Responsibility embodies this positive feeding philosophy that gives kids the confidence they need to understand that they know their bodies best.
If you find out that your child is sneaking candy because they feel that it is too restricted, help them to feel less obsessive around candy by offering it to them more often. You know your child best, and it is your choice when and how often to offer candy at meals or snacks. Keep in mind that the less restricted they feel around candy, the less drive they will have to seek out and hide candy because they will feel calm and confident that it will be available for enjoyment in the future.