‘Would you like chicken nuggets for lunch?’ ‘No, I hate chicken nuggets!'
‘Really? I thought you loved them!’
This interaction (or something similar) has likely happened in nearly every household with young children for decades. One minute a toddler can’t get enough of a certain food, and then before you know it, even just a suggestion of that food is repulsive to them. It can be frustrating for parents when their child is a picky eater, but it’s important to understand that underneath the rejection of chicken nuggets is a future adult’s decision-making in development.
Learning how to make healthy and constructive decisions is something that grows and develops throughout childhood. At each stage in a child’s life, from toddlerhood through adolescence and into adulthood, new situations and opportunities arise to practice and strengthen their decision-making. What is hard for children, especially young children, is that the opportunities for them to make decisions are limited. For example, young children would likely much prefer to have mom and dad remain at home with them every day and play with their favorite toys, but that choice is usually not an option. They may also prefer to stay in the toy aisle on a shopping trip, but again, they don’t get to make that decision either. Throughout their day children must do things that they would likely not choose if given a choice. This is, of course, normal. While parents cannot govern their days based solely on the desires of their child, it does not make it any less frustrating or challenging for their young children.
So why is this all too common scenario important?
When people, regardless of age, feel like they don’t have a say in their lives, they can feel powerless or defeated - emotions nobody wants to feel. But to learn how to make decisions that enhance their life and happiness, children need the time, space and opportunity to practice. Not only does this experience provide the positive feelings that surround making decisions for themselves, but for young children it alleviates some of the frustrations that comes from not having complete control over their days and decisions.
When parents are able to allow their young child to make age-appropriate decisions as much as possible, from what color sippy cup to use, to which shoes to wear, or what meal they’d like to eat, it not only provides opportunities for them to practice decision-making, but it also offers them some agency over their lives. Providing manageable options (‘Would you like to wear your red or blue shoes?’) makes it easier for your child to make a decision, instead of just asking open ended questions (‘What shoes do you want to wear?’), which can be overwhelming or confusing.
As Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D. note in Smart Love, “Try to endorse your child’s developing need to govern his own life when appropriate and to the extent possible.”*
When young children do not get opportunities to make some decisions for themselves, frustrations can grow. Even seemingly simple transitions from changing their diaper to putting on a coat becomes a challenge. And their frustration can morph, evolve, or be expressed in various ways and in a blink of an eye.
When this happens, we suggest applying loving regulation, Smart Love’s approach to “children’s out-of-control behaviors.”* Loving regulation involves allowing your child to express and release their unhappy feelings, staying with them through the tantrum, responding and reacting with patient sympathy, and offering your love and kindness.
It is helpful to remember that children can’t control their emotions, nor do they understand them, and they can result in tantrums. These are confusing and unpleasant for them as much as for parents and they need their parents help to get through them with their self-esteem intact.
So if the food choice your child desires is not an option, “it is better to approach children who have temporarily adopted no as their favorite word by going underneath their radar.”*
It might sound something like:
‘We don’t have pizza, but I can make you chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, or peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Which one of those would you like?’
If your child isn’t satisfied and becomes upset, allow him to express his feelings and keep him safe. Stay with him and offer your sympathy and kindness the same way you would to a friend or spouse.
‘I see you are upset. I’m sorry we don’t have pizza, if I had pizza I would give it to you. But I will stay with you, ready to give you a hug or read a story – would that help you feel better?’
Contrary to popular thought, this is not indulging or supporting ‘negative behavior’, in fact, it does quite the opposite. When children don’t feel heard or understood, it actually supports the emotions that drive unhappy behavior. So it’s important to communicate to your child that you understand. It can sound like:
‘I see you are upset.’
‘I hear you are frustrated.’
‘I understand you are angry.’
We find that as soon as children are able to release and express their sad feelings, and there upon hear the sympathy offered by their parents, their emotions begin to calm down. And instead of engaging in behavior that is very unpleasant for them and their parent (screaming, crying, or tantrums), they realize that turning to a parent for a hug or comfort feels so much better, and they come to prefer that interaction over unhappy ones.
“Trying to force [your child] to eat – only sets the stage for eating battles and problems, and casts you unnecessarily as an adversary rather than an ally. We suggest that you try to accommodate your young child when she decides she wants something different from the food she requested and you made. If you go along with the revised menu, your child will both enjoy her food and also thrive in the warmth of your relationship.”*
If you are concerned about nutrition, “consult your pediatrician and find out what foods or vitamins your son needs to stay healthy. Then take your son to the pediatrician and let him hear the doctor tell him what additional foods he needs every day... In general it is pointless to go to war with any child over food preferences. If you begin using punishments or rewards for eating, you open a door you don’t want to go through because you will be stuck with the consequences for years to come – hardly a meal will go by without your having to use threats or rewards to get your child to eat. So remain firm, consistent and caring. Within the limits of preserving his health, let him eat bread, butter and jelly to his heart’s content. At some point, he will outgrow this food fad and move on – and he will outgrow it sooner rather than later if you can avoid making a power struggle out of it.”**
*Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, by Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Smart Love Press, 2011
** Smart Love Solutions in Early Childhood, by Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Smart Love Family Services, 2010