When it comes to children and picky eating, parents are willing to try anything to get their child to eat and be healthy – especially when the frustration and struggle at meal times never seems to get any better! You’ve tried everything in the books, from promising them dessert after supper, to blending vegetables into sauces. And soon, telling your child, “Just one more bite”, or “Do it for mommy” becomes the regular type of talk at the dinner table. And even though these tricks and tactics may seem to work initially, you just these can’t seem to get a break and move on from this phase!
Want to know a secret, though? These well meaning tactics may be unintentionally contributing to your child’s picky eating.
That’s because all of the above behaviour can be seen as a form of pressure to kids.
Pressure is a tactic that we turn to when we feel that we’ve lost hope in everything else we’ve tried. Adding pressure is unintentional, but it happens out of complete desperation to get our children to eat. It’s natural that you just want your child to eat and be healthy! But when you’ve reached the point where nothing is working, it’s easy to feel that enough is enough!
The Many Forms of Pressure
Positive Pressure, which more commonly involves any of the following:
- Praising your child: “You’re such a good girl eating all your food today!”
- Bribing them: “You can have dessert if you eat three more bites of broccoli”
- Rewarding them: “You get a cuddle/sticker/etc… cause you ate all your food today!”
- Playing games involving their food, letting them have the tv/ipad on at the table if they promise to eat
Negative Pressure, commonly observed as the following:
- Dictating: “You have to eat one bite of everything on your plate,”
- Negotiating:“Okay, two bites of this, then one bite of that. If not, have at least a small bites of this one then…”
- Guilting: “think of all the poor children who don’t have this wonderful food,” or “Mom made you this delicious food and you won’t even take a bite!”
- Begging: “Please, just take at least one bite. Please, please, please.”
- Forcing: Physically placing or forcing food into a child’s mouth or holding a child’s head or hands while feeding.
There is also negative pressure that includes restricting foods, food-shaming, or withholding foods from your child. There is even hidden pressure, such as disguising foods as other items so your child won’t know their food contains a food they dislike.
Overall, there are many different types of pressure and scenarios where pressure is placed on a child, often unknowingly, and it may be hard to detect. One trick that Ellyn Satter, child feeding guru, has given to help parents know if they are pressuring or not is this:
Ask yourself, “Is what I’m doing for the reason of trying to get my child to eat more, less or different than what they are eating now?”
If so, this is pressure!
Pressure is very commonly seen in parents whose child’s doctor tells them that there’s been a dip in their child’s growth, or that they are on the extreme lower end of the growth curve. This is of course concerning for a parent, but unfortunately can lead a parent to bribe their child and say things like, “Just one more bite”, or hover around their child to make sure they’re eating. Naturally, this can make someone feel uncomfortable and often make them want to eat less.
Similarly, when a doctor tells parents that their child is on the higher end of the growth curve, parents may feel the need to restrict the types of food their child is eating or restrict eating any food past a certain amount deemed appropriate by the parent. What this can look like is a parent saying, “You can only have more vegetables”, when they see their child reaching for more rice, or saying, “You’ve had enough for tonight”, before the child has finished eating their meal.
Why Pressure Can Backfire
By using pressure as a tactic to get our children to eat more, it can actually decrease the likelihood that they will eat. This happens for a number of reasons, most of which revolve around anxiety, lack of trust, or a sense of control.
When children feel that they are forced to do something they do not want to do, they may get anxious and stressed, causing them to lose their appetite and focus on food. Furthermore, their emotional level rises and their anxiety may turn to anger towards you or towards mealtimes in general for making them feel this way. Even if it’s not obvious they are feeling this way, it will manifest in their feeding behavior through refusing to eat, not enjoying mealtimes, or not giving food a chance. To see this from their perspective, you have to imagine yourself in their situation and how you would feel if someone was trying to make you eat something that was scary, unfamiliar or gross. You’d probably feel really cautious, worried, afraid, disgusted and even fed up and down right angry that someone is making you do this over and over again!
Pressuring a child can also cause them to lose trust in you. When parents ignore cues coming from their child and try to get them to eat more or less than they want, the child begins to lose trust that you will be responsive to their needs, even though you may be very responsive in other aspects of their life. On the other hand, when a child learn that their parent is a reliable “secure base” that will respond to their need to eat or not eat, they in turn feel comfortable exploring in that environment (hint: this is what you want to eventually get them to try new foods!). Something as simple as allowing the child to decide when they are done with the meal versus forcing them to finish their meal can have long-lasting effects on attachment.
There is also the chance that your child just wants to feel in control and wants to show you that you cannot make them eat whatever you’re offering them, even if they’ve eaten it before. The concept of saying “NO” just because they were pressured to do something is all too common for kids especially once they hit ages 2-5. Think about this scenario… Your child knows that it’s important to you for him to eat his broccoli, and because he wants to annoy you, he will deliberately choose not to eat it. Or in the case of the persistent or strong-willed child that wants to be in control or wants eating something to be his idea, they may refuse to eat if it comes from someone else.
It’s important to mention here, that these tactics may seem to work in the short-term. They may allow you to get an extra spoon of oatmeal in at breakfast or a piece of carrot in at dinner, but the these tactics are not helping your child be a competent eater OR learn to love these foods (or mealtime) in the long run. It’s also important to note that certain children who are easy going, eager to please, or who are fearful may go along with the rules, but with more sensitive children or children with extreme picky eating, this will definitely lock you into more of a power struggle at meal times and can make problems worse down the road. If you feel that your child is putting up resistance to your encouragement, it’s a sign that you should try something else.
Not sure if your child is a typical or an extreme picky eater? Contact me for a free 15 minute discovery call to chat about your child’s needs and concerns.
What You Can Do Instead
Instead of applying pressure, here are some things I suggest trying:
- Trust your child’s role to choose what and how much they want to eat. Let them feel that you trust them and that you will follow the roles each of you are meant to play: you are in charge of offering what to eat at times you choose, but they will ultimately get to choose if they want to eat, what they want to eat, and how much.
- Keep mealtimes positive: Smile at mealtimes and make sure it’s a time where the whole family can sit and chat together. Make mealtimes a bonding time rather than a place for battles.
- Be neutral in your approach: It often helps to either be quiet about food altogether. For example, leaving a new food out at the dinner table without mentioning it, or being very matter of fact as to what is served for dinner. Don’t ask them to try it, but just eat it yourself.
- Praise your child’s behaviour, not what they are or aren’t eating. Provide positive encouragement to your child for following general meal time rules (ie. sitting at the table, serving themselves, engaging in conversation, etc.) and give them the confidence they need in their eating abilities while still letting them discover new foods at their own pace.
- Consider making a food journal and write in positive or negative responses to certain foods and tactics to feeding your child that you introduced. This helps reinforce positive changes that occur that you might have forgotten about otherwise and it will remind you of what progress you have made.
By building a healthy, happy relationship with food early on without the use of pressure, many of these problems can be avoided. By making a meal for your child, you are still in control of when and what they eat, but let them decide how much, and of what food you provide that they can choose from to eat. This can make it easier to introduce new foods over time. This will help them to naturally eat as much as they need to grow and thrive.
Remember, it is completely natural to use pressure tactics because all you have in mind are the best intentions for making sure your child is eating. Don’t stress if you’re guilty of using pressure, because we all are. These tactics are used and have been used for years by our parents and our great grandparents when they grew up and they are what is familiar to us.
If you find you’re still struggling to get your child to eat, or what you’ve tried isn’t making any progress, please reach out to me and other moms by joining my FREE private facebook community for more advice nutrition for advice on picky eating and strategies to help!