In my role as a parent, I often stress about feeding my child, or think about what to feed my child. I worry about providing healthy and nutritious options; about portions and timing; about educating, making it fun and pleasant. I also worry about making it a big deal and placing too much pressure on my child that I end up sabotaging the way he approaches food.
This anxiety reflects my personal issues rather than being directly related to my child. It stems from the fact that as an adolescent, and even in my early adult life, I struggled a lot with my relationship with my body. I strongly believed that personal value was closely linked to how you appeared and that the slimmer you were, the more appreciated you would be. This caused me a great deal of stress and unhappiness for a number of years. I experienced a lot of shame and disgust and held unrealistic expectations on my body. As an adult, I worked through these issues and I am better able to take care of my body, having fostered a more positive relationship with it and with food.
Thus, when I became a parent, I knew that I didn’t want my child to go through this same process. Rather, I wanted to provide him the opportunity to build a good relationship with food and his body. I encouraged the notion that he could eat as much as he needed, because I thought that children are more in tune with their body and they could identify hunger and satiation without linking them to societal norms and expectations or judgements. This concept has been highlighted in a book titled Born to Eat and it states that we learn to distrust our body which goes against our innate ability to self-regulate due to the diet culture we are surrounded with. We need to re-establish internal control which follows our intuition rather than depend on society’s messages.
However, all these beliefs were challenged when after taking all the time to prepare meals, he would refuse food or eat only a little amount. Self-doubt set in further when I received a number of comments about the fact that he was of a small stature and he wasn’t gaining much weight. These tapped into my feelings of inadequacy as a parent. Should I insist more with him to eat more food? Should I insist that he has to eat certain foods even though he doesn’t like them? As many other parents, I was (at times I still am) plagued with trying to balance out a certain amount of freedom and trust in my child’s ability to self-regulate and identify when his body is hungry or full and my input as to what is healthy enough for my child. I felt at peace when a paediatrician told me that unless my child is lethargic, losing weight, or moving down his growth / weight curve, then it shows that he is eating enough. I was doing enough.
A deeper insight into how parents relate to feeding their children leads us to understand better how:
- We link this with our emotional involvement and how it may be considered as a reflection of how emotionally nurturing we are with our children.
- We may use feeding as a way to compensate for our perceived deficiencies, example if we find it difficult to show warmth and love, we may try to over feed our children to show them how much we really love them but we’re unable to say so or show it in other ways.
- We may use it in a way to control our child’s behaviour through punishment and rewards, example if you’re a good girl I will buy you sweets.
- At times it may also be a power struggle between the adult and the child.
- In particular cases the adult may even believe that the child is trying to punish them by refusing to eat.
From my experience, and professional training, it is always important to allow mealtimes to be a safe and positive space. A time to bond with your child and to talk about how to make good choices. Sometimes it may mean sitting down together for 15 minutes after a busy day and connecting together in silence. A good link to read more on this would be: http://www.attachmentparenting.org/principles/feed
Born to Eat: Whole, Healthy Foods from Baby’s First Bite. Wendy Jo Peterson and Leslie Schilling.
Abigail Church is a Humanistic Integrative Counsellor who works with adults and children through counselling with Willingness. She can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on 79291817.