You can’t change how your children eat until you figure out how you benefit from the current eating system.
I know it doesn’t seem like you benefit from the current state of affairs (unless you count hair-pulling as a low-cost way to get a haircut), but you do. Because, let’s face it, your kids wouldn’t eat the way they do if it didn’t somehow work for you.
That’s not the same thing as saying that the way your kids eat is your fault, because it’s not. (Let me repeat: it’s not your fault.) But, if the current system didn’t work for you somehow…
- You would have reacted to your kids’ eating foibles differently
- In turn, your kids would have reacted to you differently.
- Instead of being exactly where you are with your kids’ eating, you would be in a totally different spot. (It wouldn’t necessarily be a better spot, but it would be a different one.)
Makes sense, right? Don’t you know other parents who reacted to their kids’ eating in a different way than you did and then ended up with different results?
If you’re a normal parent, you engage in a delicate balancing act when you feed your kids: on one hand you try to meet your children’s nutritional and emotional needs and on the other hand you try to take care of your own feelings too.
Sometimes, though, taking care of your feelings produces counterproductive results.
For instance, research shows …
- Parents who describe their children as picky eaters are more likely to pressure their kids into eating, even though pressuring has been shown to make kids more negative about the food they’re pressured to eat (thereby perpetuating the cycle of resistance).
- Also, parents who are concerned that their children might be underweight are more likely to pressure their kids to eat even though pressuring kids to eat has been shown to reduce their food consumption.
- Alternatively, parents who are concerned that their kids might be overweight are more likely to restrict their children’s access to certain foods, even though restriction has been linked to an increased intake of those foods once the restriction is lifted (such as when kids are visiting their grandparents).
Parents I talk to recognize that sometimes the tactics they use don’t work. Still, using these tactics makes them feel better. And feeling better is important.
In fact, taking care of ourselves might be the best outcome of the strategies we sometimes choose.
Research shows that we parents aren’t very good at assessing our children’s weight accurately, don’t know how much food our children need to consume, are often wrong about what our kids will and will not eat, often use food to transmit more than nutrition (i.e. to express our love), and the list goes on.
The solution isn’t to ignore whatever issue makes you nuts; it’s to take care of yourself in a way that affects the system differently.
There is a host of issues that are particularly poignant for parents. Some parents find themselves obsessing about nutrition, others will do anything to avoid a conflict, go out of their way to make sure their kids are never hungry, or worry their kids won’t feel loved without treats.
Everyone suffers from some mix of these issues — we all want our kids to eat nutritiously for instance — but some of us are gripped by these concerns more than others. And when you’re gripped, you can’t even begin to think of alternative tactics. Read What’s Holding You Hostage?
1) If you have a mealtime script that plays out repeatedly — you do A, your child does B — you know you’re using a tactic that doesn’t work. (If you and your kids weren't stuck in a rut the script would change.)
2) Ask yourself if the way you are interacting with your children around food could be making things worse.
3) Identify what feelings or fears you have. One way to do this is to imagine that someone has told you to change your tactics — for example, if instead of asking your children to eat two more bites you were told to let your children eat as much as they wanted to — and see what you would say after the word but. (“But then Sally wouldn’t eat enough. “)
4) Address your worries in a way that helps you break out of a bad system. For instance...
- If nutrition is big for you, consider giving your child a vitamin pill. It might calm your nutrition-nerves and allow you to experiment with other ways to get to eat the way you want. Dealin’ with the Devil.
- If hunger avoidance is high on your list, consider using backups. How Cottage Cheese Changed My Life and The Upside of Hunger.
- And if you give in to avoid conflict try Curbing Your Kids’ Craving for Control.
~ Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits. ~
Gregory, J. E., S. J. Paxton, and A. M. Brozovic. 2010. “Pressure to Eat and Restriction Are Associated With Child Eating Behaviors and Maternal Concern About Child Weight, But Not Child Body Mass Index, in 2-4-Year-Old Children.” Appetite 54: 550-56.