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Help Your Child Develop A Positive Relationship With Food
The Food Standards Agency is now taking a look at the advertising of food and its potential impact on children. Parents are right to be concerned by such influences on their children's eating habits. Also recent reports that in a few years a full fifth of children will be dangerously overweight followed fast on the heels of research showing that some children as young as five fret about their weight. Such reports mean some parents are fearful their child may develop an eating problem at either end of the scale - anorexic-type behaviours at one end and childhood obesity at the other extreme.
It's hard enough as adults reconciling our own disquiet in terms of whether we're eating healthily, exercising enough, and looking after ourselves generally. Because most adults realise that at some level whether they're overweight or have experienced an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia, or occasionally comfort-eat, there's a major emotional component in their relationship with food.
As emotions become stressed with overwork, or sad and angry through personal problems, we often respond to food accordingly - bingeing for comfort or withholding to try to regain control. Bingeing in particular has become an increasingly common response to stress with new research suggesting more than a million British women might food-binge.
This realisation can be daunting for adults but even more so when considering how to promote a healthy relationship with food in your child knowing that stresses and strains are part of modern childhood. Children respond in very similar ways as their parents to stress in the household and that can impact on their eating habits.
I've recently life-coached Rebecca, 39, a professional working mother of two. Her youngest daughter Katie, three, showed signs of becoming a fussy eater. She was quite content with plain carbohydrate-based foods like bread, pasta and potatoes but add even a smidgen of flavouring, be it chicken or tomato sauce on pasta, and she turned up her nose.
Rebecca was rightly concerned about Katie becoming a finicky eater and she was particularly anxious that this might lead to childhood anorexia. I reassured her that these worst fears were unlikely to come true as she was taking action now. Rebecca was also daunted at the prospect of having to cook two meals each evening after a long day’s work; a plain one for Katie and a tastier one for her older daughter.
The first change Rebecca needed to make was to allow herself a quiet "pause" after rushing home from work before fixing dinner. Presently things were het up and both her daughters were bound to pick up on her stress levels. On preparing the evening meal she was to sit with her daughters rather than hover around doing kitchen chores. This also helped to relax meal times.
Then Rebecca introduced a number of strategies to widen Katie's tastes. In stages she slowly introduced pieces of tomato, chicken, tuna, etc., to the side of Katie's plate. At the same time using a "distraction method" where she instigated “fun” conversation about things like their favourite outings and DVDs. At critical moments with Katie distracted she’d scoop a morsel of tasty food on to Katie's fork. In addition she heaped praise on Katie at the end of mealtimes when Katie didn’t fuss. Rebecca successfully reintroduced tastier foods to Katie's diet.
Such problems are not so uncommon as when I worked at a London teaching hospital a high proportion of the under-fives in our study had some sort of feeding difficulties. It's far better to prevent such problems developing. Not only for your child's health and long-term happy relationship with food but it also saves parents the difficulty and time of working through such problems.
In light of this here are 10 steps I've devised to help ensure your child has a positive relationship with food. Ask any significant person in your child's life to use these steps particularly grandparents who may share many meals with you and be involved in childcare. But the most important step of all is to accept you're their biggest role-model so if you've an unhappy or dysfunctional relationship with food it's time to improve it.
1/ A golden rule for right across the board is never to use food as a means to comfort your child. Parents fail to realise that when a child, e.g., trips over, skins its knee and cries, that giving them a sweetie to "make it better" leads to a lifelong belief that food = comfort. It's far better when your child's unhappy and in need of comfort to cuddle it, talk to it, and generally be supportive. Food doesn't enter into this!
2/ Equally don't use food as a punishment. For example, if they've been naughty don't withhold their supper as a punishment by saying, "you've behaved badly so it's no tea for you." Your child will come to associate food with something negative. We want to avoid such negative connections in their mind. Also if you tell them they can't have a "treat" they've been expecting ( e.g. they know you've got some special chocolate biscuits) then they're more likely to sneak off and eat biscuits behind your back since they missed out on this treat. You don't want them to feel they have to sneak and "squirrel" away treats. Secretive eating habits are very damaging.
3/ Get in the habit of talking to your child about difficult feelings. As they're growing up if they know they can turn to you with any difficulty, and that you'll really listen, they'll learn truly positive communication skills. This'll serve as a protective mechanism stopping them when they're feeling sad or angry from looking elsewhere for comfort. That "elsewhere" being food.
4/ Make it a positive and happy habit to sit down together at meal times. Use this as a time to "bond" together and chat about your lives. They'll learn that meal times, taken at the right time and in the right place, are positive events. Every family member should be included in meals at regular times.
5/ Discourage "grazing" - where children simply pick up food on-the-move, as many parents do, as it has many negative spin-offs. First, people don't realise just how much they're eating and may eat too much or too little. Second, they're more likely to choose ready-made snacks to graze on that have little nourishment and are often high in fat, sugar and salt. Third, they miss out on important time to bond together, usually grazing in front of the TV or their PC.
6/ There's a time and place for "treat" foods. There's absolutely nothing wrong with occasional sweets, cakes or biscuits but these should be eaten in the context of a fun event like a birthday party or weekend treat. And have nothing whatsoever to do with soothing fraught emotions. Treats should not be given, for example, if a child throws a temper tantrum in the middle of a shopping trip. Treats then become a good behaviour-bargaining chip rather than something all the family enjoys on special occasions.
7/ Generally speaking you shouldn't over-emphasise attractiveness, physical looks and weight when complimenting your child. Every child should be praised for the wonderful, unique individual they are. And it's absolutely fine when a child's got all dressed up for a birthday party to say how special they look. But it shouldn't be part of their regular environment to be over focused on the way they look. Such over-emphasis on physical attractiveness can lead to lower self-esteem and eating disorders with your child believing that to be a "good and loveable person" they have to be a good-looking person.
8/ Avoid using "dummies" to comfort young children. Not only does this place the emphasis on "oral satisfaction" for comfort but it's bad for their dental health distorting their teeth and mouth.
9/ Give portion sizes appropriate to your child's age and don't use the tactic of "finishing everything on your plate" as a source of control before they can leave the table. They should eat what's a reasonable portion and not forced to finish something off. Many parents simply serve the same portion-sizes on all their children's plates even if one child is two and another is nine years old. This may encourage over-eating.
10/ Encourage your child to try a rich variety of foods from a very early age. Unless in the rare case they've allergies they should be trying every vegetable, protein and carbohydrate that's available in the ever-increasing choices in supermarkets and shops. You're less likely to end up with a child prone to food-fads (not only bad for them but a hassle for you!). Watch for early signs of food fads. If they start to show such signs, e.g., only wanting to eat potatoes or other plain foods like Katie, don't get anxious. Keep calm and relaxed and introduce small portions of other foods to their place.
I can’t emphasise enough that you set the very best example by eating a varied diet yourself. Children are absolute sponges when it comes to absorbing the attitudes and behaviours of their parents. Frequently I've come across parents complaining about their children's eating habits only to find that the parents themselves are finicky and over-anxious about how much they eat or binge for comfort. As the saying goes "put your own house in order" and in this case that means eating and enjoying well-rounded meals, with a large variety of foods, and at regular times and this will serve your children well.
Useful contacts at time of writing:
To chat through parenting issues contact Parentline plus – 0808-800-2222
Also try the Eating Disorders Association – 0845-634-1414 or your child (up to age 18) can call their youth line 0845-634-7650
Published in The Express Newspaper
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