Dealing with a difficult eater can be emotionally fraught and incredibly stressful, and at times nearly all of us have said something we regretted to our children. But it’s also easy to revert to the bribes and threats we heard from our own parents, without really thinking about what kind of messages we might be putting across. We spoke to leading psychotherapist Susie Orbach to find out what she thinks we should avoid saying to our children and what we could be saying instead…
1. After you’ve put away your toys you can have an ice cream
This makes ice cream a reward. Your child will then link a task they don’t necessarily want to do with a reward, rather than relishing a job well done and getting satisfaction purely from that. It puts the emphasis in the wrong place. We build confidence by doing things – homework, putting away lego pieces or dolls. That is the best reward. It makes a child feel good about her or himself. Then you can reinforce that satisfied feeling by describing what she or he did: ‘Even though you didn’t really want to do x/y/z, you did it really well. Good for you.’
What to say instead: ‘Those toys need clearing up. Do you want to do it now or in ten minutes?’
The choice always helps a child feel they have some control.
2. Don’t worry about falling over/that mean girl, let’s get you your favourite chocolate
In this case, your child will associate difficulty and hurt with being sweetened up. The trick is to help your child express the emotion so that it doesn’t linger. If you stop their mouth with chocolate, then the things that hurt them are still waiting to pounce. They may think the way to solve difficulty is more chocolate rather than rebounding from the hurt that is felt.
What to say instead: ‘Oh let me wipe your knee and tell that pavement off.’ Or, ‘So what exactly happened with Marie?’ and then listen empathically.
The hurt will have been addressed without being diverted into chocolate and your child will be confident that he/ she can manage an emotional or physical injury.
3. Eat that up and then you can have dessert: no veg, no dessert
Although it sounds sensible to you, your child may hear that dessert is a treat for eating something she or he doesn’t want to eat. It turns healthy food into a must-eat (like medicine) and dessert-type foods into magic.
What to say instead: ‘Ah, so you don’t like this way of making cauliflower, let’s see if we can make it (together) as delicious as the other things you love.’
This recognises children have tastes and they can be respected. It helps them discriminate and get interested in the various ways food can be prepared.
4. Eat it for Mummy/Granny/Auntie Jean
This flows from the understandable desire to make sure your child eats when you deem them hungry. She or he will want to please you and may well have a bite for each of these adults they love. However, if they don’t actually have an appetite then you are teaching them to override what their stomach and salivary glands are telling them. If you do say ‘eat one for Mummy’ in desperation because your child won’t eat anything and they do need to eat, you’ll find they continue without the need for one for Granny and everyone else! The instinct to get them to eat was right but the method could be improved!
What to say instead: ‘I know you don’t think you’re hungry but you’ve been running around and I think you’re going to be underpowered in a minute. Try a mouthful or two. See whether it refuels you. You can have some cheese or pasta, which do you want to try?’
5. Don’t eat too much, you’ll get chubby
This ties eating to something fearful and disliked. Sometimes we have big appetites and need to cram in the food (especially children) and sometimes we eat less. Modelling your own different food needs and amounts helps a child to understand that food intake fits hunger prompts. In a similar way, they’ll stop when they get the full prompt.
What to say instead: ‘Gosh, you’ve got an appetite today. I was like that yesterday but I haven’t felt that hungry myself today. Sometimes I’m just like a lion. I eat big meals but other times I don’t need as much.’
Do you agree with Susie? And how do you talk to your child about food? We’d love to hear your opinions…