How to deal with food tantrums

Aug 25, 2010 by

Every middle of the night, Tina’s dog woke her up to get a treat. She complained about it, but the dog didn’t speak that language. He understood what she did better than what she said. He listened to the language of the treat. She was giving him what he wanted, and that’s why he kept doing it. He probably thought she liked being woken up in the night. Why else would she give him a treat for doing so? That dog had her well trained.

Along come Tina’s kids. All day, any time they want something she doesn’t want them to have, they scream. If they want candy, they scream. So she gives it to them. She says, “I wish my kids would quit that screaming. I hate that screaming.” But whenever they scream, she scrambles to give them exactly what they want in order to stop their screaming. She’s the only one suffering here, once again. Her words say she hates it, but her actions say she loves it.

It’s not that kids are like dogs, unless we teach them to be. But Tina is rewarding her dog and her kids for doing disagreeable things. She is reinforcing the behavior instead of turning the unpleasantness back on them.

Three Principles to Put a Stop to Food Tantrums

No. 1

Food tantrums are a special breed of tantrum.  The key thing to know about them is that you will prevent maybe half of all potential tantrums by never asking a child to eat anything. Kids never need to be asked to eat anything. That’s what their appetites are for. The parents’ job is merely to prevent them from eating the wrong thing at the wrong time, and they will eat the right thing at the right time. If prevented from bad eating, a child has no alternative (other than starvation) but to eat well. If you are trying to directly force her to eat things she doesn’t want, I can hardly blame her for throwing a fit. Wouldn’t you throw a fit if someone were trying to force feed you? Besides, pressing food on someone only serves to create resistance. Don’t try to make them eat, and there won’t be anything to fight about.

So the only food tantrums you should have to face are when a child wants to eat something you do not want him to have, for example his little sister’s mashed potatoes, more dessert or some junk food you have hidden away somewhere.

It’s part of the parent’s job to limit junk food. Firmly say no and do not give in. You kids need to know you mean what you say. It’s OK if they cry and act miserable.

Suffering consequences for bad behavior is upsetting for children. It’s difficult and disagreeable for them, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad for them. It’s good for them, and for you and for everybody in their lives, now and in the future. It doesn’t make you a good parent that you suffer from your kids’ bad behavior while sparing them the pain.

No. 2

Never give them what they want in response to a tantrum. Refuse to negotiate with screamers, tantrum throwers, or whiners. Never reinforce those undesirable behaviors by giving them what they’re trying to get. Don’t make tantrums or demanding crying effective for your children. Let your children know that whatever it is they are trying to get by throwing a fit or screaming, they will never get it that way. Be consistent in foiling the purpose of the tantrum. They’ll quit as soon as they figure out it doesn’t work. If it works, they may never quit.

Say, for example:

  • “You are whining. You will not get what you ask for if you whine. Use your big boy voice and I will listen.”
  • “You are screaming, so the answer is no. The answer is always going to be no when you scream.”
  • “Crying for what you want will get you nowhere.”

No. 3

Stop tantrums even more effectively by adding an unpleasant consequence. As with Tina’s dog, ignoring him when he wakes her up would be better than giving him the treat, but adding a smack on the snout with a rolled-up newspaper goes one better.  That’s language the dog understands. So with children, causing the tantrum to fail in its aims combined with a demotivator will accelerate results.

For example:

  • Give a choice: “You can throw your fit in your room or you can accept what I have said and stay here at the table with us.”
  • If that doesn’t work, the next time just send them to their room as soon as they throw a fit. No second chances.
  • Make them go to bed right away.
  • Take away a privilege (TV, video games, an outing, or something else they really want).

Some children respond well to a light touch,so start with that. Others need stronger action. The more drastic the consequences, the quicker the results.

Once again, it’s tough for them, but not bad for them.


Coming soon:

How to Have Dessert without Making it a Bribe

Dos and Don’ts of Dealing with Dessert

Related posts:

Leveraging dessert to get kids to eat dinner every night

Why dessert as a bribe is a bad bargain

Six ways to insure kids eat dinner whether there’s dessert or not

Eating power struggles with kids: Why they’re useless and how to end them