Power Struggles with a Toddler About Eating

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My two-and-one-half year old holds his dinner in his cheeks for hours and refuses to swallow the food!

DR. RUTHERFORD: I can see how this must be a very frustrating behavior for this parent to deal with.

MOLLY: This was submitted from a mother in Redlands, California. She added that at dinner time, her toddler just doesn’t want to eat. She serves him foods he likes and withholds snacks after nap time in order to encourage him to eat his dinner, but he is very clever about it. To get her to stop nagging him he will stuff his cheeks full of food (“he has pretty big chipmunk cheeks,” mom reports) and holds the food in his mouth until bedtime!

DR. RUTHERFORD: At this age, he’s smack in the middle of control issues. I think he values the fight with the mother more than anything to do with the food itself.

MOLLY: How can she prevent the inevitable arguing that goes on about this behavior?

DR. RUTHERFORD: It really takes two people to have an argument so she can opt out of the argument.

MOLLY: How exactly does a mom “opt out” of an argument like that?

DR. RUTHERFORD: You see, if she can remove the battleground between the two of them, it will put the ball in her son’s hands, so to speak. Control issues arise when one party feels they don’t have any power in the situation. Changing the balance of power by empowering the child can change the dynamic in this situation.

The mom might want to try putting different foods of her choice into small bowls on the table at his mealtime and telling him that he can choose whatever he wants and however much of it that he wants. Then she should walk away from the table and see what the child makes of this.

She will need to be consistent and do this with every meal for a while, and I would recommend that during this time she not sit with him at the table. Two year-olds are very concrete in their thinking and if she’s not sitting right in front of him, he’ll be less inclined to continue the struggle over food because there’s no one to engage in a power struggle with him.

Another tactic she might try is to add some lightness to the situation, by smiling at him and saying, “Awww, you look just like a chipmunk.” Not in a shaming way but in a light, joking manner that may help ease some of his control issues.