If your child is a fussy eater, or is prone to tantrums before meal time, one of the first areas to try and find solutions is to evaluate how full their emotional cup is. How connected to you are they feeling? Do they feel a sense of safety and security when you are around? A lot of common parenting challenges can be overcome by shifting focus to creating and maintaining emotional connections with your children. When children feel safe, secure and connected to their parents, they also feel more confident in the face of unfamiliar situations and challenges - like trying new food, or becoming accustomed to food that has so far made them uncomfortable.
Hand in Hand Parenting USA proposes the idea of “Parenting by Connection”. Two of their most effective tools are Playlistening and Special Time.
One of the first things you can try is spending some special time with them before meals. In this special time, you can use play and laughter to create a relaxed environment for your child, and help them feel connected and safe with you. This simple exercise might just be enough, and you might be surprised that your child’s reluctance to eat certain foods soon starts to melt away.
Fussy eaters can come up with a host of different complaints about their food - be it the smell, texture, colour or even simply how it looks on the plate. Something about the food is making them uncomfortable, and until we offer them the time and attention to express their feelings around this food. Just the act of listening is many times all they need for them to overcome these feelings, and the parent can instead use play to find ways for the child to feel safe and try pushing their boundaries with food.
You can find a list of different ways to introduce play around food at https://www.handinhandparenting.org/2016/01/20-playful-ways-to-help-picky-eaters/
If the tantrums or fussy eating persists, the next step would be to evaluate the power dynamic between you and your child. When parents do not impose safe and secure limits for their child, be it around food, bath time, nap time, or even play, the child starts to take control.
For example, think of the friend who has had too much to drink and wants to drive back, you need to take control. Your child might behave like that friend and want to make decisions that their brain is not ready for. Just as you would need to assert and set limits with that friend - because their brain is not in the correct state for making decisions, you also have to set limits for your child. Their brains are not yet developed enough to be able to take control of their decision making.
Meals are a very convenient place for children to throw these tantrums and test the dynamic as they know they are in control. All they have to do is refuse to eat and the parent will jump through the hoops and offer them what they want. This is where the tool of setting limits is essential. We set limits using ‘Listen, limit, listen.” At first the parent listens to their emotions, then they bring in the limit, and finally listen to the needs of the child.
Learn more about Listen Limit Listen here.
An example - Setting limits can be difficult, especially if you are starting late. Not to say it can't be done. When you try to set a limit and your child refuses, they are likely to break into a tantrum, or scream and cry. The only thing to do when this happens, is to sit with them, be present and available to them in the moment, allow them to release these big emotions, but do not give into their demands. Patiently repeat to them what they need to do, wait and hold your expectation until they have calmed down. You will see that eventually, if not on the first day itself, they will start observing these limits after having their good cry.
Coming back to the point we briefly mentioned about temporary tactics to get your child to eat, the most common of which is allowing them to have screen time while they eat, causes more harm than it does good.
It comes down to biology and brain development - when a child’s brain is developing and their neural pathways are forming, the experiences they have directly impact this development. Part of this development is the learning of internal biological cues - when to notice they are hungry, what to do about the hunger and even when to notice they are full and stop eating. This requires focus and attention to the task of eating - which is impossible when your child’s attention is completely absorbed by the screen they are looking at.
For example, when we are at the cinema and completely engrossed in the movie we are watching, we can easily breeze through an entire tub of popcorn, even if we aren’t that hungry. Our brain is not paying attention to our biological cues of being full. It is essential for these neural pathways to develop because they influence our future relationship with food.
Lastly, another factor here to consider is that, children are built with their own biological radar, that will not allow them to starve - so maybe sometimes, because of our ingrained association of love = feeding, we can tend to overfeed our children, or get anxious about their eating habits because we think they are not eating enough. Parents can do some self reflection here - revisit their own feelings towards food, and their ability to trust that their child will eat when they are hungry.
If your child is a fussy eater, you might be interested in attending our workshop on -
Fussy Eating - Using Play to Set Limits around Food
September 29th, 6:00 PM
REGISTER AT - https://triyoke.myinstamojo.com/product/2792957/workshop-on-fussy-eating/