Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Dinnertime Tantrums

Boy Crying at BreakfastQ: My four-year-old sits down to dinner and says, "I don't like that." He either won't eat at all or won't eat his vegetables. He then gets annoyed, trying to leave the table, whining and refusing to eat. This happens five out of seven nights. How do I respond without consequences?

A: Meal times are clearly a stressful time for not only your child, but for you as well. I'm certain that for you at this point, even the thought of dinnertime creates a stress reaction in you.

Create new experiences around food for you and your child (and your entire family). Have your child sit in your lap to eat. Feed him as you would feed a young toddler. Emotionally your child is probably much younger than four years old. Expecting him to be able to sit down at the table during mealtime is probably well beyond his developmental capabilities.

You might even consider feeding him from a bottle during mealtimes. He may need you to allow him to regress all the way back to infancy in order to create a fresh start. Children with trauma around food missed some critical experiences that we need to recreate for them. It will give him a stronger foundation from which to grow and reach his full potential.

Recognize that his behavior is being driven from fear and that it isn't about him rejecting your efforts as a mother to feed him and nurture him. When he says, "I don't like that!" what he is really saying is, "I'm too stressed out to eat this food right now!"

We also need to recognize that we shouldn't eat when we are stressed anyway. Our bodies can't digest the food properly and it can become toxic in our bodies. More importantly, forcing children to eat during this time or giving consequences around food only creates negative food related issues as adults.

The refusal to eat vegetables has a direct link to being stressed out. As a human species, we gravitate towards sweets, salts, and fats when we are stressed. What is your regulatory food? Chocolate or broccoli? When we are stressed, we have a difficult time eating vegetables. Think about the last time you were physically sick (where your body was stressed due to illness). Even the thought of eating a salad was enough to make you nauseous.

Try feeding your child outside of mealtimes. Small snacks of carrots and celery during the day can provide nutricious intake for your child. Children are more apt to "graze" than they are to sit and eat an entire meal. While dinnertime is an important time for the entire family to come together, realize that expecting your four-year-old to be engaged at this point in his development is only creating a negative experience for everyone.

As you gain a deeper understanding of the stress driving your child's behavior, you will find more solutions that work for your family. Stay focused on your child's needs and "listen" to his behavior and there you will find the answers.

Keep focused on calming your child's environment around mealtime. This will in turn help your son settle his nervous system which will naturally bring back his appetite and desire to eat.


Q: In many of your articles, you mention that the parent should calm a child down by creating security for the child. I understand that much of a child's stress and fear comes from the threat of being moved to another home. Yet as a foster mom, I can never honestly say, "You are safe. You aren't going anywhere." 

A: You're absolutely right. You would never want to say this to a foster child because the reality is that they probably would be moving on to another home in the future. Congratulations for being sensitive to giving your child only the truth!

What you have working for you is the present moment. The only moment we have guaranteed to us is the moment we are in. Capture this moment with your child. Say to her, "You are safe, honey. You are right here with me now." You can give security and nurturing at that moment. Help your child learn how to stay present with you in this precious space in time.

I recently had a foster mother relate a story to me that will help you understand the power of even short term loving relationships. This foster mother had a teenage foster child in her home for a period of only one month. Eight years later, after the child had aged out of the system and was on her own as an adult, she and the foster mother reconnected. The former foster child told this foster mother that the turning point in her life was when she was at her home. The love, safety, security, and acceptance that she was given by this foster mother changed her life and gave this former foster child the ability to move forward.She relayed how this placement, only one month in length, was the best placement she had EVER had.

You are an important part of your foster child's journey. Never underestimate the importance of your time with her, whether it is short or long term, and your ability to create safety and security in each moment, despite an uncertain future.

Press on,
Heather T. Forbes, LCSW
Parent and Author of Beyond Consequences, Logic & Control: Volume 1 & Volume 2,
Dare to Love
, and Help for Billy.

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