Eating Power Struggles with Kids: Why they’re useless and how to end them

Jul 22, 2010 by

Eliminating bad behavior at the table will eliminate a lot of poor eating.

Marlena’s children weren’t good eaters; instead, they were screamers.

Marlena tried to control their eating. It didn’t work very well. At all. Instead, they controlled her and got their own way by screaming and refusing to eat.

Four-year-old Walker was surviving mainly on bean-and-cheese tacos. If he didn’t like what was for dinner (which was most of the time), he’d go to bed hungry and wake up in the night screaming for food. So his mom had started feeding him right before bed, a “second dinner,” of whatever food he wanted, to get him to stay asleep so they all could sleep.

When two-year-old Jennifer didn’t get her way, she screamed. Her parents would scramble to make her happy to end the screaming.

Marlena’s action plan was to micromanage, bribe, beg, threaten, punish, distract, and join the screaming herself, to get them to eat what she wanted them to eat, bite by bite. One night she let Walker play video games while she spooned chicken and rice into his mouth. If Jennifer wanted more tomatoes, her mother would tell her she had to eat a bite of fish first, then rice.

Desperate for change, Marlena invited me to play Super Dinner Nanny at her house.

The first surprise that night was that the kids’ screaming went unremarked upon, unchallenged. No one expressed the least objection to it. Marlena’s husband sometimes wore earplugs to the dinner table, she had told me earlier.

Marlena’s first mistake, as with so many parents, was in trying to make her kids eat. Eating is a personal bodily function, regulated and prompted from within, from birth. That mistake was compounded, as it generally is, by a misguided lack of control over children’s antisocial behavior, particularly at the table. Kids use food refusal to get to misbehave and lord over their parents. Parents let them misbehave out of desperation to get them to eat.

Unlike with eating, kids are born unequipped to do otherwise than behave rudely and annoyingly. Good behavior is unnatural and requires far more intervention than eating. Children are completely dependent on parents to train them to behave.

When you try to control a child’s eating, what is truly only up to him to control, things will go wrong. When you don’t try to control this behavior, things also go wrong.

We can try to force children to eat, and they might appear to go along with it at times, but their rebellion will come out somehow, sometimes in ways that are harmful to themselves.

I can’t say I blame them for rebelling. How would you like it if someone made you eat something you didn’t want?

Kids are going to eat, you only have to know how to channel their hunger. It’s one of the few things, which include sleeping and defecating, you don’t have to make them do. There’s a whole load of other things connected to those things you have to make them do, but not those things.

So I told Marlena to do the opposite of what she was doing.

  1. Quit controlling, or trying to control, what her kids put in their mouths. Their own eating needs to be entirely up to them. Provide only foods you are happy about them eating. Let them serve themselves, decide how much they want, and what they want. No pressure of any kind to eat anything, ever.
  2. Start controlling their behavior. That is your job. Do not allow screaming, ever. Screaming for what they want is a bad habit and we do them no favors in allowing it. No one will accept it from them and neither should their parents.
  3. Restrict negative eating, rather than pushing positive eating. Keep them from eating junk or whatever it is you don’t want them to eat. Keep them from eating dinner in front of the TV. Don’t make something different for them if they don’t like what’s served. Don’t let them eat at the table, or maybe eat at all, unless they follow your requirements and use age-appropriate manners, including no whining and complaining. This is the hard part. Kids who are used to getting their way may scream, get angry and even violent, at this point. But once they know you mean business, and feel the pain of hunger, they shape up.

“Temporary hunger will not hurt children, but it will teach them to take what is offered when it is offered,” writes Elaine M. Gibson in “Useless Power Struggles” on Healthy Place: America’s Mental Health Channel. “We can’t make children eat, but we can make them wish they had.”

Marlena realized that if she wasn’t going to allow her children to scream at her, she would have to curtail her own screaming at them. Not a bad idea in itself.

Marlena’s path to change at the dinner table has not been a direct one, with a lot of coaching, along with false starts and reverses. When she was on the path, it worked.

She reported that her children loved filling their own plates and being left alone about what and how much they ate. The first time she tried it, Walker tested his limits with abominable behavior. He was sent to bed and cried himself to sleep.  She felt terrible about it.

But later, things improved.

“No screaming – just happy quiet eating,” she wrote me. ” Walker even served himself a tomato!!!!!  And ate it!!!!  We almost passed out!”

Related Posts:

Six sample consequences for children’s disagreeable dinner table behavior that will eliminate misbehavior as well as food refusal

Six ways to orchestrate kids’ desire to eat what you want them to eat, Part I

© Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 22 July 2010 / All rights reserved