Power Struggles with a Toddler About Eating

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.

ding 16 comments on “Power Struggles with a Toddler About Eating

  1. The majority of toddlers are either good breakfast eaters or good lunch eaters. Many of them are simply not very hungry at dinner and that’s the meal we focus on. So, relax. Tell him if he’s not hungry he can leave the table. Or go ahead with your own meal chatting with him without focussing on the food.

  2. Among the best advice my mom gave me was “A child won’t starve herself.” I just made sure I was offering a variety of healthy choices at mealtimes and I limited snacks. If it was meal time and my child didn’t feel like eating, she could sit at the table as long as she didn’t play with her food. If she started playing with her food, that was the end of meal time and the kitchen was closed until the next meal time. This worked like a charm with this child. Some meals she would eat no more than three bites. Then around every three days she would sit down an eat an adult plate of food (full chicken breast, big portion of broccoli, sliced tomatoes and rice, for example). What amazes me about her to this day is that she will have three bites of a cookie and then offer me the rest. I wish I could not eat the rest of the cookie even when I was full!!

    • Elisabeth – Your Mom is a smart woman! I always felt that I didn’t know how hungry – or not – my kids were. They weren’t going to starve, and they knew better, in general, just how hungry they were – or not. They usually made up for not eating a meal the next time around.

    • Elisabeth S. great advice and example to wait for their appetite to kick in. As well to look at the variety of meals over a week or so. It will take the pressure off the parents.

    • Maxwell – Mostly people don’t eat when they are not hungry. However, there are a number of psychological issues that come into play around food and hungry that can be quite powerful. Getting into a power struggle with Mom can supersede any hunger issue, unfortunately.

  3. Maxwell N. I recall at that time that I strongly disliked green beans and wasn’t going to eat them– that’s why being tied to the high chair and mouth forced open I was forced to chew. So, Mother won that battle; I put an end to the war as I spewed them onto her face defiantly! I have seen another mother attempt to feed her infant during her restaurant break also unsuccessfully. Trust me a wasn’t going to tell her of my Moms short lived victory.

    Note to all Mothers: if us tender souls are full or not in the mood for food we promise to avoid the spoonful. Really promise! Can you promise to try something different a little later?

    So that Maxwell is the feedback that is needed. My Mom got my feed, back!

    • John – good question! I think it’s a good idea to treat eating rather casually. Forcing a kid to eat or denying them food sets up a good possibility of later eating disorders. Sometimes the battle between kids and parents around food becomes more important than the food itself. I always found it helpful to put food on the table and let the child choose what he wants. If you notice some consistency in overeating or undereating, put smaller amounts or bigger amounts on the table. Just don’t make too big a deal of the whole process.

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