Just Work Around It: How to neutralize a child’s food resistance by getting it all out on the table

Oct 14, 2009 by

Your kid won’t eat what you want her to eat. You’ve got a problem, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it needs to be solved.

Robert Conklin, author of How to Get People to Do Things

Robert Conklin, author of How to Get People to Do Things

“Every battle need not be won to win a war,” says Robert Conklin, author of How to Get People to Do Things. “Neither do all problems have to be solved, nor all resistance quieted.”

Sometimes you can just work around it, writes Conklin. How? By simply letting the resistant one have her say.

Face the resistance

“Gross. I don’t want that stuff with meat in it,” says your little darling.

Of the many ways a parent may react to this statement, broad is the way that will lead to a bigger problem and narrow the path to a peaceful meal with the child willingly eating the dish you think he should eat.

I suggest starting with, “We do not call something that someone has made for us ‘gross.’  That’s hurtful and rude.”

Then, Conklin advises a calm recognition of the resistance followed by encouraging your antagonist to fully express her feelings.

“Nothing wrong with not liking something or not wanting to eat it,” we might venture, with no trace of sarcasm or anger. “Want to tell me what you don’t like about it?”

As parents, we may feel naturally threatened by our kids’ resistance. We tend to want to eliminate their objections, talk them out of it, refuse to allow them to express their opposition, or simply find a way to make them eat it anyway.

“I can’t stand scrambled eggs,” your child might claim.

“Can’t blame you for not wanting to eat them, then,” we could answer. “Do you know what bothers you about them?”

Don’t like or don’t want to like?

Most kids probably do have genuine food dislikes, no question about it. I used to feel nauseated whenever I smelled scrambled eggs. I wasn’t making it up.

Other times kids find out it’s also fun to fight with Mom or Dad. Getting their goats and their attention can be exciting.  All children (and adults) want sometimes is to be heard.  So try validating their feelings.  Encourage them to really let it out.

Among Conklin’s favorite responses to resistance are:

  • “I understand how you feel.”
  • “If I were you, I think I’d have that same reaction.”

Face your child’s resistance fully without challenging it. Show you’re interested.  Let her see you do not underestimate the importance of her resistance. Don’t deny that she feels the way she says she does. This response to children, or even adults, might also work equally well in other situations, as Conklin describes.

“I’ve noticed some people feel that way,” we might answer when they say they hate fish. “What would you say it is about fish that some people don’t like?”

Encourage them to fully express and explore their feelings and opinions on it, without accepting rudeness from them, yet trying not to take it personally, either.

Letting them let go

The point is to refrain from arguing against what they say. Don’t try to change their mind. Don’t try to prove them wrong or inconsistent or illogical in anyway, even if they are.

The more you deny or argue, the more they will tighten their grip on their feelings. The more you listen and accept, the more they can let it go. So instead of the typical parental overreaction to their refusal, try overreacting in the other direction, without sarcasm or mockery.

Chances are, they might begin to feel a little silly after awhile as they talk, but only if you refrain from pointing out their silliness. Let them come to their own conclusion. Without argument from you, they will probably lose interest in the topic after a short while. I doubt if many children will want to repeat such a conversation more than a couple of times.

Then, let it go as soon as they do. Under-reaction is better if they do end up eating it after all. Remain casual and refrain from gloating over their change of mind. Don’t cause them to lose face over it.

“It’s kind of a grown-up taste,” my mom used to tell us.  She would say that tastes do change. If we hadn’t tried something in awhile, she’d ask us if we were ready to try it again. After hating scrambled eggs as a small child, I did eventually try them again and enjoy eating them today. My mom’s approach gave us a dignified way to move on and give up our childish ways.

Sample reactions to kids’ food refusal that help them let go:

  • It sounds like you will probably never want to eat onions again.
  • So it’s the texture you can’t stand? The lumpiness?
  • So if they were less slimy and more crunchy, you think that would be a lot better for you?  (Do not present your questions as an attempt to find out how you can adjust the dish to your child’s tastes, but just a way of helping him explore his dislike. Encourage him to express all his feelings about it, whatever they might be).
  • So in what dishes do they taste the worst to you?
  • So it’s really the smell that turns you off?
  • What could you compare the flavor to? (This question may lighten the mood considerably)

Sample responses that risk solidifying a child’s food refusal:

  • You haven’t even tried it!
  • But you used to eat them.
  •  But you liked them when they were in the pot roast.
  •  But you ate them when Monica was here.
  •  You ate them at Grandma’s house.
  •  You’re exaggerating.
  •  That’s not even true.
  • You’re just saying that to make me mad.

© Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 13 October 2009 / All rights reserved