Managing Mealtime Battles

Ah, mealtime.  Many parents of toddlers will say that mealtimes are the time of day they dread the most.  Whether it’s because their children can’t sit still, throw food across the room or have become more “picky” with what they’ll agree to eat, it’s certainly a topic many parents struggle with.

If mealtime has become a battleground in your home, here are some tips to keep in mind:

1.) It is the parent’s job to offer healthy food options and it is the child’s job to choose what and how much he will eat.

As difficult as it may be, this is where parents have to realize that they can’t control whether or not (or how much) their kids eat.  Many parents worry that their kids will not get the proper nutrition or will wake up hungry if they don’t eat a full meal.  Remember that kids will take in exactly what they need so long as they are being offered healthy choices.  Many pediatricians will say that it’s more important to look at how kids eat over the course of a week versus just one or two days.  Take the pressure off yourself.

To avoid a power struggle, simply (and calmly) offer healthy food items (for some kids, it can take 10 times of being exposed to a new food before a child will try it) and let your child take it from there (difficult as that may be).  Also, be sure your child is well hydrated throughout the day.  Resist the urge to beg, plead or bribe your child to eat, as that will only fuel a power struggle.

2.) Be careful of becoming a short-order cook.

If your child does not want to eat what you have prepared do not make a separate meal.  Instead, have two standard choices available such as fruit or yogurt/cheese (preferably, the fruit is handheld or pre-cut so that mealtime is not disturbed for everyone else).  As your kids get older and they do not want what is being served, they can have the option to make their own meal (peanut butter and jelly, anyone?). If necessary, you can tell your child, “I’m sorry to hear you do not like what is being served.  Your options are fruit or yogurt.  You can decide.”

3.) Don’t ban “treats” or dessert.

When we deny our kids (even ourselves) of treats, the treats end up becoming the “forbidden food,” which makes it all the more interesting, desirable and what they will want the most.  Instead, we want to promote a healthy relationship with food.  Rather than thinking in terms of “good” foods and “bad” foods, it’s important to think in terms balance, moderation and portion control. So, consider allowing a small treat during the day (say after school) or, if you prefer, with a meal or after a meal (examples include a few m&m’s, a few chocolate chips, a piece of candy. Again, the key is moderation and portion control).  Don’t feel that your kids have to finish what’s on their plate in order to have dessert. This sets up a vicious cycle where kids view dessert as the forbidden food and rush through their meals to attain it.  When treats and dessert are not seen as off limits, they lose their power.  Again, parents have control over when and how many treats their kids can have. Better yet, you can ask your child when he would like to have his treat. Once he’s had his “allowance” for the day, he’ll know he can have another treat tomorrow (and if he forgets, you can remind him). Once kids are allowed to have these special foods, their desire for more and more naturally decreases.

4.) Kids model what they see.

Make sure you have a variety of healthy options on your plate.  Model how fun it is to try new foods and how enjoyable meals can be.  Again, simply enjoy your food without putting pressure on your child to enjoy his.

5.) Try finding out what your child is willing to eat.

Sit down with your child at a time when things are calm. Enlist his help in making a list of the foods he is willing to eat and consider setting up a meal chart with him.  For example, choose a mealtime (breakfast, lunch or dinner), add the days of the week and for each day of the week, have your son choose one of the items on the list that he would like to eat (using pictures of the items can be helpful).  Getting kids involved in the creation of routines is a respectful approach that models problem-solving and decision making, while increasing the likelihood of gaining cooperation.

6.) Get kids involved in the process of cooking and meal preparation.

Our kids are always looking for ways to belong, feel significant and in control.  What better way to help meet these needs then by enlisting their help in the kitchen? Take your child to the grocery store with you.  Go to the produce area and point out all of the vibrant colors.  Pick up a vegetable and ask him what he thinks it is.  Talk about where it comes from and the amazing things that fruits and vegetables do for our bodies.  Remember, food is energy! Ask your child what he would like to help you make using the fruits and vegetables he sees.  Get out a recipe book, preferably one with pictures and give him some choices.  Not only is this a way of educating your child, but think about the bond and sense of connection you are creating in the process of choosing healthy meals and cooking together.

Above all, give your child the message that you love him unconditionally and trust that he will make healthy choices for himself, when he’s ready.  It takes two to have a power struggle, so avoid accepting the invitation by trying the above suggestions.

Bon Appetit!

How Parents Can Increase Cooperation

How can I get my kids to “listen”?!

This is one of the most frequent questions I am asked in my parent coaching practice.  After ruling out a true hearing issue, I often remind parents of the saying, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.”

When parents say that they would like their kids to be better “listeners,” often, what they really mean is that they would like their kids to cooperate; to reply with a simple, “Ok, Mom/Dad” after a request of them is made. I let parents know that this goal is attainable, so long as they are willing to adopt a more positive mindset to achieve it.  Among other things, this mindset involves viewing the parent-child relationship as one based in mutual respect and understanding what underlies behavior.

Long gone are the days of the “children are to be seen and not heard” mentality.  Modern parents are beginning to realize that this generation of kids is more sophisticated (think about how well a 2 year old can navigate an electronic device) and have strong voices of their own.  Rather than attempting to quiet these voices (and behaviors), through punishment (including yelling and nagging), it is important that parents really start to listen themselves, to the underlying messages that children use to communicate, namely through their behavior and actions.

According to Rudolf Dreikurs, MD and Alfred Adler, MD, two prominent psychiatrists who studied human behavior and children extensively, children have basic needs they are trying to get met.  They have the need to feel valuable and significant, powerful and capable, to experiment and explore and to feel love and give love.  Ultimately, kids are always searching for a sense of belonging and significance.  They long to feel a sense of connection and a sense that they are worthwhile to those around them.  When children feel their needs are being met, they feel loved and valued. Kids will seek ways of getting these needs met in either appropriate or inappropriate ways; whatever works and whatever we’ve trained them to do.  For example, let’s say you take your young child to the store and she begins to whine and cry because she wants that shiny toy on the shelf.  You respond with a “No,” which was the opposite response your child wanted to hear. So, based on previous experience, she proceeds to respond with a louder and more demanding request for that same shiny toy, given it worked in the past.

In moments like these, parents have a choice.  They can choose to get upset at the demand, insist that the child “stop whining,” ignore all requests or angrily give in as they wonder what others might be thinking and just want the behavior to stop.  Sound familiar?

Happy boy hugging his mother and smiling

Another, more positive and mindful approach to this behavior involves that of understanding that a misbehaving child is a discouraged child who is looking to get her needs met.  Instead of responding angrily (which only creates fear and resentment in the child), parents can take a deep breath and remind themselves that their child is not out to get them. When calm, they can attempt to convey an understanding of the child’s needs in a respectful way.  Otherwise known as being kind and firm at the same time.  This approach also relies on the use of emotion coaching – a way of educating children about their feelings by labeling them and accepting them for what they are – not right or wrong, simply part of being human.

To give an example, here is how that same parent could choose respond to her child’s “misbehavior”:

Child: “I want that toy!”

Parent: “Wow, sweetie, I see that you really want that toy and toys are not on my list for today.”

Child (getting angrier): But, I WANT it!

Parent (taking a deep breath and remaining calm):  “I know it can be really upsetting when mommy has to say no to something that you really want.  I would feel frustrated too.”

Child (softening after feeling acknowledged):  “Pleeeease mommy?”

Parent: “I know you feel disappointed and I understand.  Here, let’s find a piece of paper to write down your request so that I can remember it for a time when toys ARE on my list.  Want to help me write it?”

Child (realizing parent understands her feelings): “Ok.”

Certainly there are many other responses the child could have.  She could persist in making her request, hit or lash out at the mom etc.  However, what we know is that when children feel heard and acknowledged for what they are feeling, their need to misbehave greatly decreases.  Understanding brain development also informs us that so much of what children learn comes from what they observe.  When Mom was able to model calm behavior, the child’s mirror neurons (specialized neurons responsible for empathy and understanding of what another person is feeling) were activated and she was therefore able to “mirror back” the calm she was observing in and feeling from her mother.

When parents use traditional forms of punishment, such as time outs, yelling and taking away privileges, the child’s behavior may stop, but it’s typically only temporary and at a cost.  Namely, the parent-child connection is weakened.  A weak parent-child relationship does not bode well when one is looking to increase cooperation.

So, when wondering how you can increase the likelihood that your children will listen (i.e. cooperate), consider how you are delivering your message.  Are you barking demands and insisting that things get done how you want, when you want?  Or, are you realizing that children are people with feelings, agendas, wants and needs of their own?  If you want to be “listened to,” first, try listening to your child.

Consider asking for what you want versus telling what you want and empathize with the fact that it’s hard to stop doing an enjoyable activity, to hear the word “no” etc.

To assist, here are a few examples that are likely to increase your chances of hearing the words, “Ok Mom/Dad” as discussed earlier:

“What is your plan for cleaning up the toys?” vs. “Clean up your toys.”

“What is next in your bedtime/morning routine?” vs. “Go brush your teeth.”

“How can you and your brother find a solution to this problem?” vs. “Stop fighting.”

The goal in parenting should not be to win.  Ideally, the goal is to create a solid, respectful relationship with and connection to your child. This feeling of connection is what makes your child want to cooperate because he feels listened to and respected by those most important to him – his parents.

Why Is My Child Lying?

Lying is a topic that has been coming up a lot lately in my work with parents. As Andrea Nair points out in this wonderfully written article, lying can sometimes be a symptom of a bigger, relational issue.

She says, “The issue could be as small as the child being temporarily distracted and not really hearing what the parent is asking, to using avoidance tactics to try and get out of a mistake.

The first question to ask is, “Does my child feel safe enough to tell the truth?” What have been the consequences of telling the truth when a mistake has been made in the past? If punishments have been used when a child comes clean, that child might feel too scared to admit a mistake. The goal is to not make lying a better alternative than getting punished for admitting wrong-doing.”

Read on for some helpful ways to approach your kids when you feel they have not been so truthful…

Read full article “What To Do When a Child Lies” by Andrea Nair

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