Fighting Food Battles at Home
Understanding why mealtimes can be so difficult
Many parents find themselves engaged in some form of conflict over food with their children. This month, we will discuss some developmental ideas that may contribute to power struggles over food. We believe parents can be most helpful to their children if they first understand some of the meanings food has for children.
In the earliest stages of life, parents have full responsibility for providing nourishment for their children. In fact, parents share or own all of their children’s physical functions, including changing their diapers, dressing them, rocking them to sleep, feeding them and even burping them after meals. Eating, in particular, remains a shared function, long after children have essentially assumed full ownership of other bodily functions.
One reason children engage in “control battles” over food is that they are exerting their right to ownership over their own bodies; in essence, to express that they know what foods they like and whether or not they are hungry. They are expressing a desire to be autonomous.
Many children will resist gaining the independence they are trying to claim because responsibility comes with it, so increased independence creates anxiety in young children. Many parents are familiar with the baffling contradiction of children demanding more control in some areas, while refusing appropriate responsibility in others.
Without conscious recognition, children often utilize food control struggles to help them bolster a healthy sense of independence and autonomy (i.e., “You can’t make me”), and to preserve a necessary sense of continued dependency and reliance (i.e., “It’s scary to manage myself — you do it for me”).
Children feel many needs and desires, and a major task of childhood is to learn to manage them. This means they must learn to relinquish, delay or accept a substitute for a desired pleasure. Eating may be the greatest cumulative source of daily pleasure for both children and adults.
Children trust that their parents know what is best for them. They wish to please their parents and are afraid to venture from what their parents say is good for them. Just as children have difficult-to-reconcile wishes to be both independent and dependent, they face conflict over giving in to their appetites and trying to manage them.
Helping Young Children Grow
Parent-child food struggles are inevitable because children are sorting out conflicting and very urgent developmental issues around the experience of eating. In fact, children cannot work out these issues without turning them into a struggle with their trusted parents. They are not yet capable of experiencing both sides of their conflicted feelings simultaneously.
What can you do to help? First, recognize the inevitability — and importance — of the struggle, then relax. By not feeling that you are failing or that your child is being unreasonable, unfair or ungrateful, you will be less likely to use coercing, cajoling or nagging approaches to influence him or her. The most helpful emotional climate will be one in which you calmly establish and hold clear expectations.
Decide which behaviors you absolutely require. Try to focus your requests and reminders on those behaviors so you can minimize struggles and allow your child to express some autonomy. You will see the benefits of doing this when your child eventually takes over his or her own body in a respectful, protective and concurring way. That is when you and your child will experience the successful resolution of your food battles.
The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the emotional health and well-being of children and families. Visit lucydanielscenter.org to learn more.