How do you deal with a 3 year-old who asks for food and then refuses to eat it, and then throws tantrums from hunger? I’d love to keep a structure, but if she doesn’t eat lunch she’ll want a snack 45 minutes later which she’ll usually eat. If I don’t give her that snack she’s an emotional wreck, and then I’m an emotional wreck. It’s like we’re stuck with grazing and awful behavior and I don’t know what to do.
and the follow up…
Once we figured out that if she was flipping out there was an 80% chance it had to do with hunger, things calmed down greatly in my house. The problem is that my daughter is (again, like me) quite hyperactive and doesn’t want to stop long enough to eat a meal. Today at lunch she was crying “I’m hungry, I want a hot dog” so we got that for her. Then she was dancing around, going in and out of the potty, talking to everyone, and despite repeated attempts to get her to sit for 5 minutes to eat, she wouldn’t. So we have to leave after a good 30 minutes of this and immediately “I”M HUNGRY!” Cue screaming fit in the car.
I was asked this recently on facebook (lots of fun stuff happening over there as it’s much easier to post links to articles etc.) This mother is not happy with the grazing routine, the demands for food, and is trying to implement structure. She has astutely sensed that hunger triggers tantrums, but knows something else is going on as well.
(These reader answers are general as I don’t know specifics, and when I say “your” I am talking to this mom, but also all my readers, so I’m trying to bring in as many suggestions as I can to address this issue.)
Beyond my initial thought which was earplugs and/or noise cancelling head phones, this is a real problem for many families. Tantrums are no fun, and some children are master tantrum throwers. Keep in mind that if your ultimate goal is to avoid all tantrums, parenting won’t be much fun because the child has the power, the ultimate trump card.
Tantrums may increase in the short term as children resist changes or loss of control/power, so knowing that going in to any changes in routine may help. Tantrums often work, that’s why kids keep them up. In this case, the mom states that the tantrum usually results in the child getting a food handout.
Apparently the most reinforcing reward for behavior is intermittent reward. Think of the rat hitting a bar for a sugary treat. If he gets the treat every time, or every tenth time, that’s nice, but if he sometimes gets it on the third, sometimes on the 50th try, that intermittent pattern leads to the most persistent seeking for reward. Sad news for us parents, or as a friend put it, “We’re screwed.” That time I caved in after 45 minutes? Now she has been reinforced to go even longer the next time. Cruel reality (I remember being on the phone with a relative who gave in after 6 hours of pestering for a cookie. What lesson has that child just learned?)
If you feel powerless about tantrums in general, then some general parenting resources to deal with discipline may help. I’ve mentioned a few in my resources section, some of which I’ve read as a parent looking for guidance in my own home, and others I’ve researched for clients. Asking for help is a sign of good parenting. So, with that said, here we go…
This mom is not happy with how things are going. That is a clue that something needs to be changed. Here are a few thoughts, using Satter’s Division of Responsibility (DOR) as the guide.
your jobs: decide what, when, and where to serve food
your child’s job: decide to eat it or not
Usually when parents are stuck with feeding it’s because the parent is doing the job of the child, or is allowing the child to do the parent’s jobs. Going from the limited information I have, there are a few areas where the DOR seems to be getting crossed, and a few suggestions to try.
First off, the note mentions that the little girl is “crying for a hot dog”, so they got her one. This suggests that the little girl is given too much control over what is being served. Were the adults already sitting to a meal? It wasn’t clear, but it sounded like lunch had started and she asked for a hot dog. So mom makes the hot dog. (What is everyone else eating? Were there other options she could have had? Were others cleaning or at other tasks while she was expected to sit on her own and eat?) These scenarios are more common for my clients where the children are smaller than average, or are particularly selective eaters, or whose tantrums may be outright rages if there are behavioral challenges as well. For many parents who worry about weight or nutrition, the temptation is to make something the child asks for in the hopes that the child will eat something…
So we have the child taking over the parent’s job of what, and the when because when she screams or tantrums for food she usually gets it. Likely she is not then sitting and eating and paying attention or getting a balanced intake, so it’s a vicious cycle.
1) Plan a balanced meal offering, including three or four choices. When she asks for a hot dog, consider saying this,”We’ll have hot dogs again soon. This is what’s for lunch.”
2) Work on transitions, before meals and snacks, give her the five minute warning, wash hands, have a routine that has more calm activities before meals and snacks.
3) What kinds of foods are for “snack?” Often these are more appealing foods like crackers or cookies, or granola bars and children will refuse to eat meals, and then beg for snacks or treats. Include a variety of foods at meals and snacks.
4) Sit and eat with the child.
5) Meals might only last five minutes. Ask that she does sit with you. You can even set a timer for five minutes. Try not to give in to the 30 minute attention dance of trying to get her to sit at the table and eat.
6) Do meals have adequate fat and protein, or is she ricocheting from a high to low blood sugar level several times a day? If meals and snacks tend to be high in sugar or carbs with little balance, after the peak of energy, she may have low blood sugar that contributes to the tantrums and hunger.
7) Feed her with positive attention during meals, ask her questions, engage her. Ignore her when she is not at the table. Is she getting attention with all these diversion tactics? Is there a sibling who may get more of the attention? (Nurtured Heart Parenting and other ideas for reinforcing the behaviors you want to see, and making the table a pleasant place to be where good things happen, might help.)
8) Expect her to be capable. Ask her to help you lay the table, even if it’s just putting napkins out. Praise her for helping, tell other adults what a big help she is, particularly if there is a sibling in the picture. (Apparently, when children hear you praise them to others, that makes more of an impact than praising the child directly.)
9) You may want to offer a meal/snack every two hours initially, no handouts in between. Use the phrase “We’ll eat again soon” when she begs for food.
10 ) Address behavior. (I like the 1-2-3 magic book, but parenting and discipline strategies vary greatly with every child.)
Just a few suggestions. Parents, how have you dealt with this issue? What parenting resources have you found most helpful?
P.S, and don’t forget, it should get easier as kids get older. Three can be a tough time, certainly was much worse than the “terrible-twos” for us! It’s amazing to see how these little kiddos can swing from calm and lovely, to tiny Tasmanian devils at the drop of a hat. The rapid and wild swings of mood were the hardest thing for me to deal with at the time…