There is so much to love about toddlers; they can be funny and affectionate and it's magical watching them learn about the world around them, gaining new skills. However, from a parenting perspective, I don't know about you, but it's a time I found really challenging. Toddlers require such huge levels of patience and understanding - sometimes this is easy to give, sometimes (when we're tired or stressed) it is not so easy.
I had a question about parenting a toddler this week, from a mum in the facebook group for parents of picky eaters which I co-run with Simone Emery of Play With Food Australia. This question was about a two year old who wouldn't sit still at the table and kept wanting to get down. This is such a common phenomenon, I thought I'd put some of the things I talked about in the Q & A video, down in a blog post. So if you are the parent of a small person who is not a fan of sitting at the table, this one is for you!
As with all problematic mealtime behaviours, the first thing to do is ask yourself
"What is this all about"??
Because to change a behaviour, you need to understand it first.
A two year old may be trying to avoid sitting through a meal for several reasons. Perhaps it is part of the developmentally normal boundary testing that children of this age like to challenge us with... perhaps it's a bid for autonomy; two years olds like to do things their way on their terms. They are experimenting with their personal power as they learn that they can make their own decisions. Perhaps they are getting a buzz from the impact their behaviour has on the grown ups. Getting adults to react is experienced as a big win by two year olds.
Two year olds are busy people - they have things to do and places to be. Maybe their project of the moment does not involve sitting at the table at eating a meal and they really would much rather be elsewhere, thank you very much. This wall isn't going to draw on itself you know...
All of these things fit in with the age and stage that a child is at and need to be tackled with this in mind.
When it's not so simple
Sometimes, though, a toddler's unwillingness to join in with a family meal is not about any of these 'normal' toddler things. It may be that a child is very uncomfortable with eating. If a child is a picky eater and has a genuinely anxious reaction to food, they will do whatever it takes to avoid that situation. You can read more about food anxiety here.
It may be that your child finds mealtimes overwhelming from a sensory perspective and they have a strong urge to get away from the smell, feel and sight of food on the table. Some children with sensory processing issues find sitting still very difficult in itself, before food is even in the picture...
The question to ask yourself is whether the behaviour fits with how your toddler is in other situations. If your child isn't great at sitting still for long periods of time and hasn't got the longest attention span, it makes sense that sitting down to a meal could be tricky. If they are going through a phase of boundary testing and every request is met with a "NO!", it could be that meals are just another arena for these behaviours. However, if this resistance is something you only ever see at mealtimes, maybe food is the problem and you need to look deeper.
Get the basics right
Before we get into a couple of strategies you could implement, it's vital to have the basics right. First, is your child's seat physically working for them? And secondly, have you done all you can to get them in the right mental space for eating?
There is actually a bit of an art to getting a child's seat at the table right. These factors are SO important because if your child's seating isn't optimal, the odds of a successful meal are stacked against you from the moment they sit down. Especially if they are having to really use their core muscles in order to sit upright, due to a lack of stability. You need to make sure they have enough space but that they are supported, especially their feet and back. Sometimes, a small tweak can make a huge difference.
To harness or not to harness?
As I say ALL the time, 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'. If your child is used to a harness and is happy with one, great. You can carry on using it as long as it is appropriate for them both in terms of their size and stage.
However, if you have a toddler who doesn't like to sit at the table, I think that a harness is a really bad idea (assuming of course that they are developmentally capable of sitting safely without one). This is because using a harness to keep a toddler in place against their will brings in all sorts of emotional dynamics.
By physically restraining a child, you are using your superior strength and size to overpower them. This makes them feel completely out of control (which they effectively are). This will dramatically add to anxiety, negative feelings about mealtimes and levels of conflict, all of which research shows make a child's relationship with food worse and increase picky eating.
Set the scene
To get the best outcome, help your child get meal-ready by using my golden twenty minute strategy. Devise your own pre-meal routine: perhaps have some special music that you play in the run up to a meal, or a bell to ring. Giving your child prompts and a 'count-down' makes it much easier for them to wrench themselves away from whatever activity they are engaged with. Avoid TV in the half hour before meals - screen time is very stimulating and gets children in the wrong mental state for a meal.
Focus on the mealtime environment, making sure that you have made everything as calm and upbeat as possible. Try some relaxing music in the background; for some children this makes all the difference. Try not to get too stressed and shouty - I'm not judging; I have been that stressed and shouty parent in the rush before a meal when the phone is ringing, the meal is burning and the kids are climbing over the furniture.
Choose your strategy
So you have the right chair, the right mood and you have helped your child get 'meal-ready'... here's a couple of strategies that I'd like to share. I don't recommend using them together - pick the one that sounds like a good fit for your child's personality and your parenting style. I always recommend that you try any new strategy for at least three weeks before you decide whether it's worked for you. It takes a couple of weeks just for your child to stop testing you and believe that you mean it! Children like to know if changes are there to stay so they kick against them at first just to see what happens.
This one sounds kind of hard line, but it usually works after you've followed through a couple of times. You do have to be prepared to be consistent though. Here's how it works: you explain to your child that if they get down, that's a way of telling mummy (daddy / grandma...) that they are done. In other words, once they get down, the meal is over.
If you want to use this, you need to know what it is NOT
It is not "You have got down. Now you can't have pudding". So maybe they can't have pudding, but this is incidental; they can no longer be part of the meal because they've chosen to leave it. This may mean they miss out on pudding. This is really different from withholding sweet treats as a punishment.
It is not "If you get down again, your meal is over". This is one strike and you're out, as long as they understand clearly in advance that this is the deal. They get down once, they are no longer involved in the meal.
- It is not "Your meal is over but you can have a cookie in half an hour if you're hungry". Your child needs to know that the consequence of their choice to get down is that they may feel hungry and there is nothing until the next scheduled meal or snack.
You need to implement this strategy calmly and kindly because you're not punishing, you're just consistently explaining the consequence of a child's choice. It feels tough when you know they would have eaten more, but once they realise that this is what happens when they get down, it's really unlikely that they will continue doing it.
This strategy is great for the kids who are engaging in developmentally normal boundary testing and power play. If your child is an anxious eater or their is another, more complex reason for their attempts to avoid meal, you need to take a more softly, softly approach and put your energy into working with the root cause of those issues, ideally with professional support.
You also need to be confident that your child has the cognitive maturity to understand the concepts involved in this strategy, such as consequences and how our behaviour can signal different things.
This strategy is all about separating a child's mealtime behaviour from what and how they eat. It's not okay to try to control your child's eating or 'make' them eat what you have served. (See Ellyn Satter's Division of Responsibility) but it is okay (and appropriate) to have expectations about their behaviour. I hate reward charts for eating with a passion, because it messes with self-regulation in a big way, but they can work with mealtime behaviours which are not about eating.
Give your child a sticker chart, and for every 5 minutes that they sit nicely, pop a sticker on the chart. Or give a sticker for every meal where they sit nicely - whatever works for you and your family. be creative based on your knowledge of what motivates your child. And it goes without saying that food-based rewards are a no-no !
Meaningful change is all about baby steps - aim low to begin with, just aspiring to a few minutes at the table. Give your child tons of praise and build up. You need to set them up to succeed with small, achievable goals.
Review your expectations
Are you asking too much? If your child is a slow eater and needs half an hour to eat their meal, maybe that's okay. If they want to get down after 15 minutes although you haven't finished, perhaps that's okay too. I suggest 15 minutes as a minimum to aspire to and 40 minutes as a maximum, but you need to think about what feels right for you and your child as every family is different.
There is an enormous variation in the speed adults eat and children are the same. This needs to be respected. The main question is: "Are they at the table long enough to eat their meal?" because when their urge to get down is getting in the way of their eating, you have a problem.
I hope you find some of these strategies useful - if you try them out, please let me know how you get on. I'd love to see you in my facebook group .