Question: Today my 4 year old was given his dinner and refused to eat it. He ate this meal (chicken, broccoli, and bread) last week. We don’t know what to do when this happens so we usually end up sending him to his room, but this doesn’t feel right. We also don’t want to get in the habit of making him another meal. What should we do?
Answer: All parents have dealt with picky eating at some point and it is always frustrating and confusing. It is hard to know exactly why this is happening so it is easy to react from habit. This is a very common problem. Parents need to consider their goals for meal time and if their behavior is congruent to meeting those goals. There are a number of feelings and behaviors that both parents and kids come to the table with. Here are 5 to consider:
(Before these considerations parents should always make sure their is nothing medical going on with the child like being nauseous or sick.)
1. Does your child like the food and/or is the child bored of the food or is your child even hungry? This is often overlooked in the busyness of life but it is important to consider. Children are allowed to have preferences, likes and dislikes, just like grown ups. They just don’t always know how to express those and parents don’t always, quite frankly, care because they are not willing to make another meal. Have you ever been exposed to a food that you normally like that you were just not in the mood for? Kids have days like that too, so if this is an infrequent occurrence, do not make it into a big deal. Many well-intentioned parents also serve milk with meals which kills their children’s’ appetites. While the protein is good for them, it fills them up before they have time to eat their actual meal. Also, obviously but worth noting, keep their snacking in check. It is so difficult to not feed them a full meal (calories-wise) when they are begging for food but you want them showing up to mealtime hungry, so make sure any snacking is light enough to leave them ready for mealtime.
2. Is your child really asking for some control? If you have a concern that you child is being manipulative or needing to have some power at the dinner table, we would suggest you listen to that intuition and give them some control. This can be hard because traditionally parents have a strong desire to be in control and be respected at all times but this is counterintuitive to a happy mealtime. For this specific example, we would give the child choice of a dipping sauce for the chicken (give him 2-3 options), a choice of how he would like the chicken cut (cubes with a fork or long strips he can pick up with his fingers-if that is acceptable at your house), a choice over how he would like the broccoli cut and possibly sauced (cheesy might be irresistible for a 4 year old), and whether he would like to eat the bread or not since it is not nutritionally dense. Sometimes parents get go caught up in the dinner wars that they do not even realize that they are demanding their kids eat something (like bread) that isn’t feeding the child’s health but rather the parent’s ego and need for control.
3. Is your child resistant to a certain specific food? If the child is resistant to a particular food, say broccoli, we would suggest you consider doing something called “chaining”. In this process, the child is presented with new foods that may be similar in taste, temperature, or texture to foods the child already likes with the goal of them eating a food in the form which it is normally served at your home. So for example, if you want your child to eat raw broccoli, offer a broccoli muffin to start (assuming they like muffins), then have them eat a blended broccoli soup, then finely diced broccoli in eggs, and so on and so forth until you have them dipping their raw broccoli in dip. Choose delicious ways to chain and your kid will eventually be eating a new food. We also suggest allowing kids to start the chaining process by just having the food on their plate. Period. Just that is a step in the direction of them “warming up” to the idea of eating a new food.
4. Most kids will not wither away and die if they do not eat a meal. We would make sure to keep this in mind if you child says they are not hungry. Forcing kids to eat when they are not hungry sends a message that they shouldn’t listen to and respect their bodies, but rather the exterior demands of the person who is in control. Not what parents actually want for their children in the long run. Mealtime should be focused on promoting prosocial behavior and facilitating re-connection after a long day and if your child is resistant to eating tread lightly and do not make too big of a deal of it especially when it interrupts the familial connection you are establishing, which is more important that caloric intake at one meal (unless it becomes a pattern, in which case, you should look below the surface level of behavior and try to figure out what is really going on).
5. Should you make him a new meal? In general, no. You do not want to send the message that they can simply refuse to eat and get something “better”. But if you know the child is truly hungry and in need of calories in his body but still not willing or able to eat the food offered, it is not problematic to offer a simple alternative as long as it does not become a regular habit. Do not cook something that takes much effort, but reheating desired leftovers or fixing him a bowl of cereal is fine. Being too rigid at meal time is just going to exacerbate power struggles and that is the opposite of what family meal time is about.
6. Sending a child away from the dinner table for refusing to eat is not desirable because it does not get them to eat, does not teach them appropriate way of asking for different food or how to politely refuse food, and facilitates disconnection which are all the opposite goals of meal time. Time-outs, during mealtime, or other times are a waste of an opportunity to teach valuable skills like how to regulate their emotions or how to get their needs met. (Click here for link to Rethinking Discipline.)
We hope this helps facilitate a broader understanding of appropriate ways to deal with stressful mealtimes and wish you sweet love and good eats.
We highly recommend checking out this resource for more mealtime and eating ideas: http://itsnotaboutnutrition.com/
Behavior is always an expression of needs. Good behavior is simply needs being met and not-so-good behavior is a cry for help. But most young kids don’t have the emotional maturity to say “parents, I’m feeling really ‘x’ right now, I could use some love and to learn some strategies to use when this happens ”. Of course– that would be ridiculous—so instead they behave in another way that gets their needs met and unfortunately, adults often see those behaviors at a surface level and do not take the time to understand the underlying root cause of those behaviors.
Typical discipline at home usually looks like being: yelled at, grounded, sent to room, time out, taking away a privledge, spanked or roughed. Most families work from the belief that the parent is the authority and should have total respect from the kids.
Their are five criteria for effective discipline according to Dr. Jane Nelson of Positive Discipline:
All people, even kids, want to always feel a sense of love and safety. But unfortunately traditional discipline does not facilitate those feelings and in fact, it normally goes in direct conflict with those feelings. Fundamental to conscious discipline is a focus on the child as having the locus of control (as opposed to the caregiver). Clearly, age, temperament, and unique personality have to be factored into any approach you choose to take but the three biggest factors one must confront in order to rearrange poor behavior patterns, of any age child, are in the areas of connection, boundaries, and consequences.
When one is considering consequences it is important to think about whether or not their are already natural consequences in place. Natural consequences (aka. “logical consequences”) are obvious outcomes or effects that occur without any human intervention or action (ex. kid hits sibling and sibling doesn’t want to play with him anymore). Unnatural consequences are imposed by people and are usually based on their culture, world-view, and beliefs. They are inherently coercive and power-centric (ex. kid hits sibling and gets sent to timeout bench). Natural consequences help maintain the parent-child relationship because there is no power differential, only empathy and support. Unnatural consequences are really a euphemism for discipline; they can be somewhat random and do not directly relate to the reason the child was being punished. Unnatural consequences reinforce the parent as being in power and the child as less-than. The goal of any consequence is to immediately stop the behavior and to teach different behavior. So instead of interjecting power, which is truly rather artificial and will degrade the quality of the parent-child relationship, try relying on the natural consequence more frequently and using any “bad behavior” as a teaching opportunity.
Think about the typical discipline issues in your home. Are the consequences your child faces typical natural or unnatural?
One critical factor in giving your child boundaries is deciding what exactly you are willing to let your kid get away with. You have to decide if you are drawing a line in the sand or a line in stone.
If one is drawing a line in sand or a negotiable boundary, the first need is to evaluate whether it is worth having the line at all. It is OK to tell a child that you do not have an immediate answer and need time to think about it. Engage them in a discussion about the pro’s and con’s. Let them practice seeing both the positive and the negative to the situation and let them help come up with alternatives. Even little kids will appreciate being included in the discussion. We all want our kids to be good at making decisions, so illuminate your thought process and help them develop theirs.
If you are drawing a line in stone, aka a firm boundary, you need to mean what you say and say what you mean. Examples of lines in stone for most families deal with safety in some way. Having a firm boundary does not mean refusing a discussion through what relationship expert Dr. John Gottman refers to as “stonewalling”. Stonewalling, or refusing to engage in discussion or explanation, chips away at relationships and breaks trust with the exact person with whom you want you to trust with even the toughest discussions: your child. Reject the kinds of parenting that says “because I said so” even when it is tempting to do so. Communicate with empathy, solidity, and openness despite challenging behavior from your child and see it as an opportunity to attune to their inner-world.
When extinguishing a bad behavior from a childs’ repertoire, say nagging or hitting for example, that behavior tends to get worse before it gets better. This can be confusing and throws a lot of parents because when they try to set a boundary and all of a sudden the behavior is worse they think they somehow messed up in extinguishing the behavior and go back on their boundary. This is detrimental to the boundary one is trying to set.
Remember that authoritative parents let their boundary be known and talked about and can hold the firmest of boundaries with love, that is why they are refered to as “tough love” parents. This does not mean you will waiver. It will depend on the situation and whether you are drawing a land in the sand or a line in stone.
Although this is the last point, this is really the most important. Connection is absolutely vital to teaching your child anything and enjoying the process of doing so. The first and most important relationships in a child’s life are those with his or her parents. In fact, in group counseling one of the primary goals of that experience is “corrective recapitulation of primary family”. The meaning of this is to show proper functioning of interpersonal relationships. Because the foundation of all relationships, parent-child and otherwise, is trust and connection it is important to give ample energy to making sure your attachment is strong. Traditional discipline has relied on parents being in power and making rules and demanding unconditional respect. The new approach, the conscious approach, declassifies the parents from ruler and promotes them to teacher and supporter who can be relied on for guidance even when the child is displaying their worst behavior.
Taking time to enjoy your kids—and letting them enjoy you—will put the relationship capital in the bank. And when you need to–or mess up like we all do–and take withdraw from your relationship “bank account”, it will be OK. You won’t be steeped in the kind of guilt you used to experience because you will be able to reflect on all the good, fun, relationship-building you have done and know that it will carry you through a rough patch.
As you are rethinking how consequences, boundaries, and connection are used in your home, be aware of how you were raised and how that informed you. Parenting is hereditary, learned, and one of our most basic cultural constructs. Yet, with awareness, education, and practice one can change the primal desire for power over their children.
What are the most common issues that require consequences in your house?
Does your approach to consequences typically show more connection or boundaries?
(c) 2016, Nurture: Family Education and Guidance