I love toddlers. Open, aware, sensitive and intuitive, they’ve had us pegged since their first weeks in our arms, and we now begin to discover how truly brilliant they are.
First, as I imagine you’ve done already, rule out any possible medical issues by checking with your doctor, especially if Tessa is losing weight or not gaining properly. But even if she does have a digestive issue of some kind, the family goal is for mealtimes to revert back to being a peaceful, comfortable time to focus on eating and each other rather than a battleground. Here’s what I’m guessing may have happened…
Blessed with doting parents who value healthy food and “worked like crazy” to give her la crème de la crème from her very first mouthful, Tessa responded beautifully and rewarded her parents’ efforts by eating with gusto. At mealtime, the family was not only refueled by delicious food, it was an unadulterated success for everyone. Happy times.
Then something happened. Your guess is as good – or better – than mine: teething, a cold, a change of taste, or just a period of growth when Tessa didn’t have her usual appetite (children go through phases when they eat less). This change in Tessa’s eating caused her parents a teensy weensy bit of concern, her antenna picked up a “vibe” (with a toddler’s sixth sense, it doesn’t take much), and she felt some tension surrounding her and food.
At the same time, because she is secure in her parents’ love, Tessa is beginning to explore some areas of interest two year olds are fond of – testing, independence, power, control, will. Fun stuff. This stage of development is trying for parents. It takes practice to find the healthy balance of power with a toddler, but resisting her parents and asserting herself is exactly what Tessa should be doing. She’s right on track.
Eating is an area Tessa controls and needs to control. She is the only one who knows when she’s hungry and when she’s full. She has to listen to her tummy and trust herself. Lately, mealtime has become a little too “loaded” for her to be able to listen. She’s not trying to torture you; she’s just feeling her power and playing her role, which is to resist anything she perceives as pressure.
Here are my suggestions for a truce.
Don’t invest or anticipate.
Lower your expectations about mealtimes with Tessa. (After your recent experiences, this probably goes without saying!) This isn’t the time for you or your wife to prepare meals for Tessa à la Julia Child and set yourselves up for feeling disappointed and unappreciated. Do that when it’s just the two of you, but for Tessa keep it simple.
Since you’re human, you may be projecting your anticipation (or even dread) of a scene at mealtime without realizing it. When we’ve been dealing with weeks of resistance from our children, whether it’s about eating, diaper changes, going to bed or whatever, we can’t help but project trepidation, which can make matters worse. Since toddlers sense our feelings, wiping the slate clean and projecting confidence and calmness works best. Likewise it helps to…
Temper reactions and responses. Be aware of subtext.
Make eating solely about the relationship between Tessa and her tummy. Don’t get excited when she eats well, disappointed when she doesn’t, coax or encourage her. For now and the future, be careful not to give Tessa the impression that the amount she eats pleases or even affects mom, dad or anyone. Instead, encourage her to focus on her physical needs — her appetite and sense of fullness — by staying neutral. This requires tempering feelings, curbing both enthusiasm and worry. Since our toddlers are very, very, very smart and can read between the lines, we can’t even give them the gentle reminder that they like eggs without them sensing our agenda. Believe it.
I’ve had parents in my classes with underweight toddlers — one who was even told the child had “failure to thrive”. Imagine how challenging it was to stay neutral when food was presented and not worry. One mom realized it worked best to leave the room and let her toddler eat meals with just her older sister whenever possible until the toddler gained enough weight for the mom to be able to stop projecting tension. I’m not suggesting anyone do this, just illustrating the powerful effect we can have.
Give choices and small portions.
Present less than you think Tessa will eat – very small amounts of 3 or 4 types of food. Keep the rest handy. Let her eat as much or as little as she wishes and be the one to ask for more. What she chooses and how much she swallows has to be in her control. Be sure to let her know that when she signals she is done — slows down, starts fiddling with food or (ahem) throwing it down — mealtime is over and she won’t have another opportunity to eat until the next meal or snack. This isn’t punitive, it’s giving her the autonomy, choices, limits and consequences she needs.
Try not to get angry or annoyed if she acts out with food. Keep your cool and say something like, “Hmmm. You’re spitting. You must be telling me you’re done.” Then follow through with conviction by taking the food away and kindly helping her out of her chair, always telling Tessa what you are doing.
Let go and trust.
Channeling Marianne Williamson: ’trusting and letting go’ are recurring themes for parents, too, and it’s always a struggle to figure out how and when to do it. Toddlers sometimes lose their appetites when they feel pressured around eating (or get constipated when they feel nudged to toilet train), but they don’t go on serious hunger strikes. Project trust, be okay with it even if Tessa skips a few meals, and she’ll be back to normal again soon, and onto testing elsewhere!
Bon Appètit! Janet
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