“Every meal is a battle zone. She won’t eat what I give her, no matter how long I make her sit there. It’s awful. I dread mealtime.”
This is what a distraught mother of a three year old said to me the other day, as she was holding her little 8 month old.
“Wow”, I said “That must be really frustrating and unpleasant. Situations like this are complex and don’t have easy solutions.”
We talked a little and several significant facts emerged but she was in a hurry to leave and couldn’t take the time to really get into it with me.
“So… ” she said “Could you write a blogpost about it?”
“Absolutely!” I said.
(So here it is. This blog is for her and all of you engaged in power struggles around food or any other issue.)
As in any parenting situation that repeats itself over and over again, there are usually multiple factors at play.
And generally, trying the same thing, with slight variations, over and over again, is not going to make the outcome change.
In the situation of the mom I spoke with:
- She was experiencing a war of wills. A real power struggle over who was in charge of her child’s eating.
- The parents thought it was essential for their little girl to appreciate how lucky she was to have access to food when so many people in the world are hungry.
- Both parents believed in “the clean plate club” because “there are starving people in the world” and she was not to leave the table until she ate all of her food. Food should not be wasted or taken for granted.
- The little girl was unhappy since the new baby came along. Her jealousy came out in a number of ways.
Let’s examine each of these situations:
Situation #1. The Power Struggle: All parents experience power struggles with their children at some point. We probably experienced them when we were children.
Power struggles always reflect a conflict of needs, and the needs can be very complex.
- For the parent :
- I need to feel some sense of control over my life
- I need to be able to control my child
- I need to get rid of the feeling of powerlessness and inadequacy that I feel when my child doesn’t listen to me
- I need my child to believe what I believe and act accordingly
- I need my child to feel the way I want them to feel
- I need to feel I’m a good parent and am doing the right thing
- And lost in all of this: I need to nourish my child
- For the child
- I need to feel a sense of control over my life
- I need to exercise control over the few things I have any influence over – like keeping my mouth closed and refusing to eat
- I need to have my parents’ attention and focus
- I need to feel that my parents love me even though there’s a baby they spend so much time with
- I need to feel that I matter
- I need to eat when I am hungry
- I need to eat until my stomach is full
Power struggles take place when the underlying needs of both parties are intense and in conflict. When children don’t listen to us, all of our underlying feelings of inadequacy and powerlessness (probably from our own childhoods), rise up with great force and we go into “fight and defend” mode. So do our children. (So do many countries in the world)
Staying in power struggle mode gets you nowhere. As one of my favourite parenting authors, Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, says:
On the surface, power struggles look like a tug of war. Parents and kids pitted against one another. Opposing forces pulling in different directions. Two individuals, at odds with one another, both determined to WIN!
The trouble is that if you win by simply overpowering your child, you still feel lousy. There’s little pleasure in victory when your child is left feeling resentful and angry. If you lose, it can feel even worse.
So what to do?
First of all, YOU are the adult. YOU are the one who can take a few deep breaths and step back.
At the heart of all interactions with your child, think in terms of CONNECTION, rather than “winning the war”. Battling it out pushes you further away from each other.
When children are angry and defiant, they are telling you that they don’t feel connected and they probably don’t feel very good about themselves at that moment.
And if the power struggles keep happening over and over, their sense of disconnection and not feeling okay about themselves just grows and grows.
This just leads to more power struggles.
It’s okay for children to get frustrated sometimes, and be unhappy about decisions you’ve made. They need to learn to handle disappointment.
How? Children learn to handle disappointment by observing how their parents handle frustration and disappointment.
You are their role model. If you go into “Fight to Win” mode, that’s what they are learning.
Referring back to the situation of the mom I spoke to, it’s clear to see that they are locked in an endless cycle of power struggles around food (and maybe other things as well).
Situation #2. Let’s look at the parent’s desire for the child to feel lucky for having food. There are several things to think about here.
- Three year olds have very little cognitive capacity for abstract thinking and reasoning. (see my post about Toddler’s Lies)
- They have almost no sense of time or distance, a very shaky grasp of what’s real and what’s not, and virtually no intellectual capacity to see things from anyone else’s (like the starving child’s) perspective.
- The cognitive stage they are officially at, is called “egocentric”. This is not a judgement label. It’s the reality that preschool children are only able to see things from their own point of view. With time and developmental maturity this changes.
- Children learn compassion – caring about others – by being treated compassionately, and observing compassion in action in your household. When they observe you doing random acts of kindness towards them and others, they are learning kindness and caring too.
- Children learn an attitude of gratitude by seeing it expressed continuously by their parents towards each other, towards them, and towards people they and their parents encounter throughout the day.
- Some families express appreciation for their food by expressing that appreciation to the person who cooked or served the food, and, if you have a spiritual or religious tradition in your house, by saying a blessing of thanks.
Fighting and pressuring children to eat does not build compassion or gratitude.
Situation #3: Nutritionists and health professionals agree that “The Clean Plate Club” philosophy can be a contributing factor in:
- Obesity – children eat more than they need to, to please the parent and prevent conflict.
- A diminished sense of body awareness – children are taught to ignore internal signals that say they have eaten enough.
- An unhealthy attitude toward food – the anger, frustration and power plays at the table carry over to make food and meals a source of anxiety and guilt throughout life.
Situation #4: The power struggle over food could very well be the result of the little girl’s jealousy of the new baby and her feelings of exclusion and not being loved as much. (See my post about Sibling Rivalry)
Ok, now that we’ve looked at this family’s situation, let’s look at what this family can do to mitigate their mealtime unhappiness (and more).
- Stop the power struggle. Don’t participate. Surprise the little girl and say “That’s okay if you’re not hungry. We are, so we’ll eat our food. We would love you to sit with us and keep us company because we love to be with you.”
- Actively engage her in all aspects of food preparation:
- Ask her what she likes to eat. Write it down.
- Create menus WITH HER that incorporate her preferences – if you only have healthy food in the house this is not a problem. Breakfast food can be eaten at dinner. Left over dinner can be snack food, etc.
- Go shopping together and specifically get the foods she likes. Let her take it off the shelf and put it in your basket.
- Thank her.
- If you grow your own food, involve her in the garden. let her plant, water, etc.
- Thank her.
- Include her in the food preparation. There is always something she can do, even if she stands on a stool and washes each green bean separately.
- Thank her.
- Set the table together. Let her choose her plate and cutlery.
- Thank her.
- Ask her how much of everything she wants – and go with it. Children do not opt to starve.
- Let her eat as much as she wants. When she stops ask her “Are you full now? Have you had enough?” If so, she can go and play if she wants.
- THANK HER for sitting at the table with you, if she ate, and for eating the food she helped make.
- Recognize that in doing all these things:
- You are establishing CONNECTION.
- You are giving her the attention she craves.
- You are being a loving teacher, not a prison guard.
- You will feel better about yourself.
- You will actually feel more in control.
- The little girl will feel that what she thinks and what she feels matters.
- She will see that there are special things she can do with you because she is bigger than the baby.
Whew… that’s a lot to chew on isn’t it?
Power Struggles over food are usually a sign of other issues. If you are experiencing them, take a look at what you were taught about food and behaviour generally, what messages you are giving to your children about food, and what other things are going on (new baby, new job, not enough time together, etc.)
So when you’re dealing with your children, be aware that good feelings associated with food throughout their childhood will promote both their physical and emotional well being.
PS: And a note to the mom who asked me to a blog about your situation, I hope my advice helps bring more peace and happiness to your family.