Does your child constantly nag you for food? Does this happen only at particular times…or all of the time? Do you eventually give in due to exhaustion? Or perhaps a headache? What is his/her temperament like? Is he persistent in getting his way all of the time? If so, this is likely a power struggle…and not a hunger issue. Think about your child’s interactions with others. Do grandma and grandpa or the nanny spoil your child and always oblige him? If so, you may have a cute little “monster” on your hands.
Sometimes our children are naturally hungry—a wonderful trait for many. As parents, however, we need to determine when our child is truly hungry or truly just pushing our buttons to see how much he/she can get away with—or actually get from us. Remember, structure and boundaries are important issues in raising our children whether it’s about food or even something as simple as wearing a hat on a cold day.
3 Clues to Determine If Reported Hunger is Real or an Attempt for Control
- Your child nags you about food at non-meal times when you are trying to get him to do something else. (Examples: Bedtime, clean up time, quiet time.)
- Your child is asking for food when you are not giving her attention. (Example: You are talking on the phone or working on the computer and your child is not self- entertaining.)
- Your child engages in power struggles over food he/she likes yet refuses to eat. (Example: You agree to a snack of apples and cheese at the kitchen table but your child demands crackers instead and wants to eat them on the couch.)
If these mini scenarios remind you of your child, be very cautious in your next moves. Your child is most likely trying to win a power struggle around food…and may be succeeding! This battle is comparable to his/her feelings about control in life and about the parent/child relationship. If not kept in check, it may turn into a counter-productive relationship with food later in life…likely leading to obesity or any other eating disorder.
5 Tips to Eliminate the Parent/Child Power Struggle
- Set specific times for meals and snacks. They can range with a “must” start time of 15 minutes before or after the predetermined times.
- Have your child sit down at the kitchen table for all meals and snacks with no screens to view while eating.
- At least one hour before bedtime, offer a p.m. snack and clearly state that this is the last opportunity for food. After that time, do not give in to your child’s pleas! You are setting appropriate food boundaries.
- Do not succumb to the begging, crying and screaming even if it lasts for an hour. If you give in, your child will recognize his power and push the limits even more or longer the next time. Instead of crying for an hour to get his way, he will persist for 75 to 90 minutes until he gets his snack.
- Ask your child if there is something else she would like…perhaps a hug or to read a book with mommy, or even the chance to help prepare the next meal.
Don’t fall prey to the hunger trap. Employ the five tips above to help create positive new behaviors. If struggles remain or you feel helpless, enlist the help of a Registered Dietitian specializing in both pediatrics and eating disorders. This will help to guarantee that food intake is removed from the power struggle and make it less likely your child will/won’t eat to satisfy control issues.