How to go from mealtime minefields to table top diplomacy.
Is your family fighting at the dinner table? Would you like to stop the fighting? Mealtime squabbles can be over food, over manners, or other behaviors. Fighting at mealtime certainly does not lead to family togetherness, or peaceful eating. Many times the discontent is because parents are concerned that their child is eating too much, not enough, too fast, or too slow. Children may be refusing to eat what the parent puts out, and whining and complaining follow. Children or others at the table often show little or no appreciation for the time, money and effort the parent has put into the meal, and parents can resent this lack of gratitude and respect.
Often parents may be conflicted between different children’s needs at the same table. They may find themselves cooking two or three or more different meals in an effort to just find something a child will eat, in an effort to try to keep every one happy or at least fed. When a child rejects food after food that a parent has made an effort to present, frustration and resentment builds. If this happens over and over, particularly if the parent is worried about the child’s weight or health, everyone becomes become more and more anxious. Parents and children begin to negotiate, because now the child has taken control of the meal. Parents and children both end up angry, frustrated and helpless. Mealtimes become places to dread and avoid instead of enjoy.
Other mealtime behavior problems revolve not around what is being eaten but rather how. Are children sitting at the table or running in circles, climbing on chairs or the table, spilling food on the floor and furniture and trailing crumbs through the home? Do you have to yell and scream for your child to come join you at the table, only to have them pop up again after two bites? Is there no semblance of table manners, or is one parent continually harping on how the child eats, sits in the chair or uses their spoon or fork?
Behavioral issues may require that parents take a critical, careful look at what the child is doing, what the parent is doing, and how these behaviors may interact. Sometimes videotaping your meals and watching the video with an impartial third party can be helpful. Examine the tape carefully to see exactly what happened. Look at what happened before and after an unwanted behavior. Every behavior a child does has a trigger, or something that happened before he acted that way that caused the child to respond in that particular manner. This is called an antecedent. There is also a consequence, or some reaction from either the environment or a person. This is what happens as a response to what the child has done.
These responses can be described as reinforcements. Reinforcements can be either negative or positive. (‘Behaviors’ handout). Sometimes children behave deliberately in a way to get a response from an adult. A child who cannot get positive responses sometimes behave badly because they like getting their parents rattled up and upset during the meal in order to not have to participate or eat. Some children unconsciously behave in a certain manner because while they cannot get a positive response, they can get a negative response. Even though a response may be negative, they are at least getting a reaction from you.
Because of this, clear, consistent expectations from parents are very important for your child at the table. If your child knows what will happen when she acts in a particular way, she may be better able to control what she does because she is certain of the outcome. Parents have to be consistent in both their responses and with each other. Scientists know that the highest rate of reinforcement comes from inconsistent positive reinforcement. This means that the child is unsure of when the positive or desired response will happen, but it will happen eventually. For instance, if he knows by past experience that his whining or complaining for a particular desert or treat will result in getting that treat, he will continue to ask for it whether the parent gives in after one minute or 20 minutes, sometimes after a lot of yelling, crying and screaming.
Another important thing to consider is that all adults who are parenting the child must agree on how to respond to a child. There has to be consistency from one adult to the other in their responses to behaviors. If one parent continually gives in and is not supportive of the other parent or adult, the child has found the weak link and knows where to go for the response he is looking for. This has therefore reinforced his undesirable behavior. He has provided the parent with an example of negative reinforcement: the parent wants the whining to stop, so they give the child the desired lollipop.
Not all disruptive mealtime behaviors can be changed simply by changing a parent’s response. Many children’s mealtime behaviors are the result of the child’s sensory responses to the food or emotional responses to pressure. Some children with special needs may have poor impulse control, poor language or social skills, or delayed development. They either cannot or don’t know how to respond appropriately when they are upset, hungry, tired or frustrated. Every child needs to be parented in a manner specific for their level of development, understanding of cause and effect, their ability to respond and react, and their needs for comfort and love.
Many of these issues can be resolved, with time and patience. Ellyn Satter’s Trust model and division of responsibility in feeding can be a good resource. Division of Responsibility Flyer