Claiming turf: One reason that children engage in "control battles" over food is that they are exerting their right to ownership over their own bodies, to be the one who knows what foods they like and whether or not they are hungry. In a child’s first months, parents share or own all of their child's physical functions. The infant depends upon adults to manage burps, clean diapers, maintain a comfortable temperature and provide food. Eating, in particular, remains a shared function long after the child has essentially assumed full ownership of other bodily functions. One reason that children engage in "control battles" over food is that they are exerting their right to ownership over their own bodies, to be the one who knows what foods they like and whether or not they are hungry. They are expressing a vital desire to be autonomous and to surpass an earlier mode of relationship in which their parent knew their needs and feelings best.
Avoiding anxiety: Children will resist gaining the very psychic turf that they are simultaneously trying to claim. After all, this turf is the land of responsibility, where the illusion of absolute parental protectiveness cannot be sustained. In other words, for young children, there is much anxiety associated with increased independence. Most parents are familiar with the often-baffling contradiction of their children demanding more control in some areas while refusing appropriate responsibility in others. Without conscious recognition, children often utilize food control struggles to help them both to bolster a healthy sense of independence and autonomy (i.e., "You can't make me"), and to preserve a necessary sense of continued dependency and reliance (i.e., "It's scary to manage myself — you do it for me").
Accepting limits: Children feel many needs and desires, and a major task of childhood is learning to manage them. This means learning to relinquish, delay or accept a substitute for a desired pleasure. Eating may be the greatest cumulative source of daily pleasure for both children and adults! Most adults still struggle to curtail this tremendous source of pleasure; just imagine how difficult this is for little children who are faced with more pressing desires, less ability to manage them and less understanding of the long-term implication for their choices.
However, there are reasons that children do try to control their desires. They trust that their parents know what is best for them; they wish to please their parents; and they are afraid to venture from what their parents say is "good for you". Just as they face difficult-to-reconcile wishes to be both independent and dependent, children face conflict over giving in to their appetites and trying to manage them.
Helping children grow: Parent-child food struggles are inevitable because children have conflicting and very urgent developmental issues that they are working out around the experience of eating. In fact, children cannot work these issues out without turning them into a struggle with their trusted parents. They are not yet capable of experiencing both sides of their conflicted feelings simultaneously, so they need their parents to represent one part of their mixed feelings. It is as if children are fighting with themselves, but assigning to their parents one of their inner roles in their own personal drama of growing up!
So, what can parents do to help? First, parents can recognize the inevitability — and importance — of the struggle and relax. By not feeling that they are failing, or that their children are being unreasonable, unfair, ungrateful or greedy, parents will be less likely to use guilt-inducing, coercive, cajoling, shaming or nagging approaches to influence their children. The most helpful emotional climate will be one in which parents calmly establish and hold to clear expectations. Parents should decide which behaviors they absolutely require. Furthermore, they should focus their requests and reminders on those behaviors, so that they can minimize struggles and allow some autonomy for their child. If parents have consequences for non-compliance with their required expectations, they should make them gentle so that they can implicitly convey their understanding of the great struggle that their child is experiencing. The following family's example may help:
Johnny, age 5, was an unpredictable eater. Sometimes he would eat his meal well. Other times, he might pick at his food, gripe about the choices, protest that he was not hungry or try to leave the table. His parents decided that Johnny was permitted to eat any of the foods in the prepared meal, or he could choose to replace or supplement those foods with cheese, raw carrots or a baked potato. He had full control over the amount of food that he ate at the meal, but he did need to stay at the table until his parents declared that dinner was over. His parents tried to find dinnertime conversation that Johnny enjoyed. He was permitted to have an after dinner snack of his leftover dinner or standard substitutes an hour or later after dinner's conclusion. This was the only consequence associated with refusals to eat, although he would lose certain privileges associated with the bedtime ritual if he refused to stay at the table.
We recommend that parents avoid battles over whether their child eats a certain amount of food or particular kinds of foods. If they wish, parents may try establishing such a requirement. Some children will accept such a rule fairly well. However, if parents detect signs of resistance, we recommend that parents relax this requirement. Parents have a small chance of winning this battle without applying heavy pressure and consequences, and are likely to promote negative parent-child interactions and potential problems with food and eating for their child. Parents can keep in mind that the most effective teaching comes not from what they require, but from what they demonstrate. It helps to have confidence that by modeling moderation and concern for their own well-being in their own food choices and in those that they provide for their family, parents are providing the most important assistance that will eventually enable their child to develop a healthy attitude toward food.
One final suggestion: Parents can invite their child to plan and shop for meals. Although this approach will also create additional opportunities for conflict, parents will convey their interest in being collaborative and responsive to their child's individual preferences. The parents’ respectful attitude will find its fruits in their child's eventual identification with their attitude and taking over of his or her own body in a respectful, protective, and non-conflicted way — and this is the truly successful resolution of food battles!
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