Do you feel that feeding your child more means you love her more? Are you trading sweets and treats for good behaviour? Do you give in to your child’s nagging for treats just to keep the peace? Does your child always negotiate around food? If you answered yes to these questions, you’re likely to be using food as an ally in your child’s growth and development.
It positions you, the parent, as a friend, or “peerent”, rather than the authority or leadership figure in your child’s life. The consequences can be poor habits around food that impact your child’s development, health, ability to concentrate and regulate her own emotions and, ultimately, to make healthy choices for herself down the line.
What drives your child’s behaviour?
Preschool children often can’t verbalise their physical or emotional discomfort such as being tired, hungry, thirsty, bored or needing a parent’s attention. They also often confuse these needs and act out by showing frustration, irritation and even anger. This can result in undesirable behaviours, including tantrums, crying, being clingy or lashing out at their parents. They may also refuse to eat, become a fussy eater, overeat for comfort, or experience toilet training and sleep regressions. This is your child’s way of exerting control when she feels she has none, but could also be simple manipulation.
Many children pester their parents for the sweets and treats they see in advertisements and promise they’ll behave if the parent gives in to their request. A staggering 70% of parents say they give in to nagging, because they feel guilty for not spending enough time with their children, and because they’re too tired to hold their line.
Children pester their parents for three foods the most – cereals, fast foods and energy drinks. Not surprisingly, 98% of food advertising is centred around these items. This kind of fast-burning fuel kicks in quickly, raises blood sugar levels and then rapidly drops them. This is far from ideal for young, growing minds and bodies that require protein and nutrient-dense foods on a regular basis for optimal performance and emotional stability.
Food and your child’s emotions
One of the increasingly common things I see today is parents handing over food or a device to a child in distress. Unfortunately, while the child calms down, both these “solutions” have the potential to short-circuit a child’s emotional development and emotional intelligence. The minute the desired food or device is handed over, you see a child swallow their distress, irritation, frustration or anger, and stuff it away.
Children need to be able to identify their emotions and work through them. Being able to resolve their own emotions, with your help and guidance, teaches your child to develop self-control so she is, ultimately, able to behave appropriately.
If you’re continually giving in and compensating, you’re not doing your child any favours. Food, in particular, has a strong emotional link, and your child’s emotional diet is just as important as her nutritional diet.
If your child feels understood, “seen” and validated by you or her primary caregivers, her “emotional cup” is filled. When children feel invisible, when their fundamental needs (food, water, sleep) are not met, and if they’re not getting the right kind of attention, they’re likely to manipulate you by becoming fussy eaters, not eating or over-eating.
If you ensure your child eats well and regularly for sustained energy, drinks enough water, gets enough sleep and enjoys regular quality time with you, your child will feel valued and there will be little need for her to seek attention by behaving in ways that irritate and upset you. It’s important to know it’s OK to offer your child sweets and a treat occasionally, but the shocking fact is that South African children are now twice as overweight as their international counterparts.
Rising childhood obesity
In South Africa, 23% of preschoolers (two to five years old) and 14% of school-going children aged six to 14 years are overweight. This is more than twice the worldwide prevalence of 6.7%. In a 20-year longitudinal study titled “Sex Differences in Obesity Incidence”, if the participants were obese between the ages of four and eight years, then boys were 20 times and girls were 42 times more likely to be obese when they were 16 or 18 years old. Overweight children not only have to deal with bullying and teasing at school, but also the long-term impact on their health as their risk of developing chronic lifestyle diseases like diabetes, hypertension, dyslipidaemia (high fat levels), chronic inflammation and hyperinsulinemia increases.
The bottom line is South African children need to be eating more nutritionally dense foods for sustained energy. These foods include avocados, yoghurt, peanut butter, maas, fruit, vegetables, nuts and protein. As Lebo Matshego-Roda, a nutritionist and researcher at UNISA said in her address at the second Yoghurt Summit in South Africa in September 2018, “Inadequate nutrition in childhood can equal development gaps and reduce a child’s overall potential.”
We negotiate too much with children around food and get over-emotional. If they don’t want to eat something, we need to remain calm. Take what they don’t want off their plate and what’s left is what they have available to eat. If there is nothing left on the plate, they don’t need to starve − there is always bread and water. Don’t offer too many choices either. Limit these to provide a feeling of security and save your own sanity.
Tips for raising healthy, happy eaters:
- Involve children in the cooking process from an early age.
- Involve them in shopping for food and engage them in their own nutritional process.
- Eat together from a young age – mealtimes can be opportunities for emotional bonding moments.