Breathing, food, water, sleep… these are basic needs. As a parent, it’s our responsibility to provide these basic needs to our children. It’s not like clothing and shelter where we can buy or rent a home, buy or borrow clothes and put the kids inside. (There! Need met, tada!)
We can’t sleep for our kids, we can’t eat for them, drink their water for them. So when our kids are struggling with these most basic of needs, instinctively, we take that on ourselves as a failure of parenting. How many parents do you know who have their biggest concerns about eating and sleeping? Our self worth as a parent is a very fragile psychological space.
This is how our psychologist explains why parents resort to using pressure when we are faced with feeding challenges. It’s so easy to take even well intended advice as an attack on our parenting ability.
If you are feeling frustrated with your efforts to end mealtime battles, consider where your child is developmentally in terms of eating.
Are you expecting too much too soon?
Is pressure creeping into meals? Are you and your child trying to micro-manage each other’s responsibilities with feeding? If you have previously been using encouragement, rewards, catering, or other forms of pressure to get your child to eat, you’ve been locked in a win-lose tango. You had “moves” to get your child to eat – your child had moves to counteract the pressure to eat. To break that cycle, you need to change your routine, and the two of you will have to learn a new dance. This is why when parents switch to a division of responsibility approach to feeding, eating sometimes gets worse before it gets better. You both need time to get accustomed to this new rhythm.
Are you in a damage control mode?
An unfortunate reality of this world is that sometimes, really terrible things happen to children. Adopted and fostered children often come from food insecure backgrounds, as well as a history of trauma or abuse. Even old-school feeding tactics based on control, punishment or guilt can do considerable damage to the parent-child relationship. Feeding is parenting. Providing reliable and predictable meals that respect your child’s eating ability, in an enjoyable and relaxing atmosphere, helps children (both adopted and biological) feel secure, build attachment and bond with their parents. Focus on building trust by being absolutely reliable with meals and letting your child decide how much to eat.
Is your focus on the food or the child?
Ignore the constant rhetoric about how many servings of something you should be eating, and how fat, sugar, salt, and well… food is bad for you. Seriously, turn all of it off. Sure, I would love to see my son eating a balanced diet from all four food groups, but he isn’t at that level of eating competence yet. Right now, TJ is experimenting with food that tastes good, which is a huge improvement from the child who was too anxious to join us at the table a year ago. Building eating competence depends on meeting needs in the right order (finding enough to eat, selecting socially acceptable food, being able to plan for future meals, selecting food for taste, eating for curiosity, and finally, following a dietary plan for personal health or weight goals.) Expecting TJ to eat his veggies to benefit his future health, at a time when he struggled to find enough food to eat, only set us all up for a mealtime battle that none of us were going to win.
Step back and meet your child’s eating needs where they are right now. If crackers are the only acceptable food she finds on the table, let her eat as many crackers as she wants with your blessings. Your child will first learn to trust that you will feed her before she will learn to trust the food you put on the table. Eating competence is a slow progression of building confidence with food, and what better way to boost your child’s self esteem than by showing her that her presence at the table is more important than the salad on it.
And please, be that voice that tells you, every now and again, that you are a great parent and you’re doing a fine job.