Parents who, in a moment of panic, comfort their distressed children by letting them indulge in a junk food snack which they aren't typically allowed to eat may be doing more damage to their child's relationship with food in the long run. It turns out "emotional eaters" likely learned the habit from their parents.
A recent study of 3-7-year-olds out of Aston University found that, when children aged 3-5 are "rewarded" by their parents using food as the treat, they were more likely at ages 5-7 to choose eating a snack food over playing with a toy to self-soothe when feeling emotionally distressed — even though they were not hungry.
Said Dr. Claire Farrow, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Aston University, who carried out the study:
As a parent, there is often a natural instinct to try and protect our young children from eating 'bad' foods: those high in fat, sugar or salt. Instead we often use these food types as a treat or a reward, or even as a response to ease pain if children are upset. The evidence from our initial research shows that in doing this, we may be teaching children to use these foods to cope with their different emotions, and in turn unintentionally teaching them to emotionally eat later in life.
And, because there's a significant link between "emotional eating," and disordered eating, the quick fix of soothing a child with "comfort food" or framing junk food as an occasional "treat" for good behavior can have lasting, detrimental effects on a child's overall adult health, as well as their relationship with food.
And, honestly, it underscores the problem with the whole rewards/punishment system for children in general. Similarly to how food rewards can trigger emotional eating, material rewards can trigger (duh) materialism. And punishments don't re-train bad behavior because children all of a sudden come understand that their actions are hurting someone (or themselves); punishments simply trigger fear in children, and encourage them to lie to get out of "trouble." Instead of using a rewards system, experts (and anyone who has been in therapy for five minutes) suggest teaching children to feel a sense of gratitude, accomplishment, and empowerment when they do something they feel is good. Basically, to parent by teaching emotional awareness and mindfulness instead of using reward/punishment systems.
Obviously, if a child is emotionally distressed, it's a good idea to figure out together why they're feeling crappy. Yes, it's a painstaking process that requires a lot of patience — especially if you aren't particularly good at knowing why you're feeling crappy sometimes — but it's way more effective in the self-care marathon than filling up and smoothing over the crappy feelings with stuff, or, as the case may be, delicious stuff.