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Food for Thought

child eating

A pediatrician, also a good friend of ours, called to refer a 4-year-old who had refused to eat anything but Fudgy Bars and chicken McNuggets for the past two months. Indeed, any therapist working with families soon encounters problems involving some type of disturbance in the feeding relationship between parents and their children.

Feeding your child is laden with all kinds of strong emotional underpinnings. There is tremendous emotional power in eating…or not eating. Feeding problems with children clearly illuminate who really is in control of what goes into their mouths.

How you approach and manage the feeding relationship reflects your overall approach to parenting your child. It is a fine line between allowing your child the necessary autonomy and setting limits.

If, in the process of parenting, you communicate feelings of confidence, faith and respect in your child’s abilities, it is easier to let your child be in control of his part of the feeding relationship. Parents want their children to develop into separate and independent human beings. To accomplish this, kids need experience with autonomy.

Some parents pressure their children to eat—whether it’s more or less food—with good intentions. They want a healthy child who will grow up strong, or maybe they are pressuring their child to eat as their parents pressured them, or perhaps there is little faith in the child’s capacity to regulate his or her own nutrition and quantity of food. It’s an area where parents can carry a lot of anxiety.

Ellyn Satter is a dietitian, social worker and author of books including Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense (Bull Publishing, 2000), and How to Get Your Child to Eat…But Not Too Much (Bull Publishing, 1987). She writes about a division of responsibility in feeding, noting, “Parents are responsible for what is presented to eat and the manner in which it is presented. Children are responsible for how much and even whether they eat.” If either person starts doing the other’s job, there will be problems.

In the case of the Fudgy-eating 4-year-old, the parents had become anxious, especially given of a history of illness. They tried several means of pressuring their daughter to eat. Out of desperation, they allowed their child to manipulate them with unacceptable behavior just so she would eat something. Helping these parents become clear about what they are responsible for, and what they are not, was an important first step in resolving this situation.

Essentially, parents should select, buy and prepare the food in the house. Children can help with meal and table preparation, but parents are in charge of what food is available in the house and served for meals.

Also, parents can regulate the timing of meals and the timing of snacks. You want your child to come to the table hungry and ready to eat. If your child wants a snack 30 minutes before dinner, it is certainly acceptable to tell them to wait until dinner is served.

Parents are also responsible for providing the family meal. Make family mealtime a priority and expect your child to show up at the table. They may not choose to eat, but you want them there. Cooking a meal for your child is a powerful way to let them know someone is looking out for them. Start this routine early and it will become an expectation as your child grows older. 

Make family mealtime pleasant. Forget about who is or isn’t eating or what they are eating and how much. Help children learn to participate in family meals and maintain standards of behavior at the table.

Remember that how much a child eats from day to day can vary widely. Children come equipped with a genetic blueprint that primarily guides their growth and body type. Because of this, they have the innate capability to choose nutritious food in the right amounts when it is presented to them. 

Pressuring a child to eat more or less does not work. If you get caught in this power struggle, talk with your pediatrician or family doctor. The sooner you can change the dynamic and avoid a history of conflict, the better.                      

Cary and Tonja Rector are married and live with their children in Manlius. Cary is a licensed mental health counselor and Tonja is a licensed marriage and family therapist. Write to them in care of editorial@familytimes.biz. Consult your own health care provider before making decisions affecting your family’s well-being. To comment on this article, write to editorial@familytimes.biz.

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