One cold gray day my two-year old son sat in front of his food, not eating. I reminded him a couple times gently to take bites and of the simple fact that his body needed food to grow. Meanwhile, my anxiety over how little he was eating and how long it was taking continued to build and eventually I exploded yelling at him to eat his food now!
My son has a history of being “failure to thrive.” As an infant and toddler he barely ingested any food. We saw many specialists and eventually learned that he was dairy and gluten intolerant. We also discovered that he has low muscle tone and some sensory sensitivities that further compounded his eating challenges.
While it was really helpful for me to understand what made eating difficult and for the most part utterly unenjoyable for my son, all the understanding in the world did nothing to quell my mounting anxiety. I was exhausted from my son’s multiple weekly therapies and spending HOURS every day trying to feed a child who seemingly had no internal desire to survive let alone thrive. I began to feel powerless and completely ineffective at meeting my child’s most basic needs for survival. I was terrified and resentful for having been dealt such a difficult kid to deal with. From where I sat, every other parent child relationship looked like a cakewalk. All those other children just ate, simple as that.
Fast-forward now about five years. My son is seven going on eight. He takes the bus up and down a mountain every day to get to school. He is funny, kind and smart. He loves science, nature and anything having to do with animals. And he still has a challenging relationship with food. Every day when he comes home from school I unpack his lunch bag and more often than not there is a significant amount of food left.
On a “bad” day I will still explode and go off on a tirade about how he needs to eat and how on earth can he possibly expect to grow up big and strong when he eats like a bird!?!? But most of the time I catch myself, and I am able to give myself empathy for my anxiety and feeling of inadequacy as a mother and I am able to apply my empathy for him as well. I know that eating is still a challenge for him, especially in a large social context where there are a lot of other distractions.
I call this silent self-talk my little piece of peace. This tiny moment in time literally has a palpable feeling of ease and spaciousness and it is rejuvenating enough that all the anxiety I was feeling seconds ago just melts away. And in that space there is so much freedom. Sometimes I choose to throw the food away and not say anything, and sometimes I may say, “I noticed you did not eat much at lunch, do you need a big snack or shall we prepare a feast for dinner?” At other times I use it as an opportunity to check in about whether he is likes his lunches or whether he might desire something different.
I find I get a lot of really interesting information when I ask these questions. Sometimes I discover that someone was being especially funny at lunch and he was laughing too much to eat or that they had an interesting field trip and had to cut lunch time a bit shorter to make it happen. And occasionally I find out that he does not like a particular food right now or that a particular food combination does not work for him. Above and beyond the information I receive, there is a moment of connection, of conversation between us after a long day apart that I miss every time I slip up and yell at him.
Knowing that I get easily triggered at meal times with my son, I put some safe guards in place at home to make them as pleasurable as possible for both of us. The first thing I always do is to make sure he has some input on the menu options. I ask him to choose the veggie or the protein or both and I invite him to help prepare the meal so that he feels included. Choice is power for children.
Second, I keep a tool kit at the table for when meals tank and he is not eating much. This tool kit is a basket stocked with Mad Libs, a joke book, and a child magazine or two. The moment I get a whiff of stress in my system, I take out one of these tools and put it to use. Reading an interesting article or telling a few jokes keeps me from spiraling out and loosing my patience with him.
Each time that I remain centered, I find that my mind stays clear and I am able to find loving and sometimes funny ways to encourage eating. The other morning Dillan was not feeling well and seemed to have very little appetite. He was poking his food around his plate but nothing was going in. Instead of losing it, I picked up a raspberry and put it on my finger like a hat. I proceeded to pretend that I was a giant gobbling up helpless little elves with their cheerful hats. I joked that my son would not be so cruel as to do the same thing, that surely someone in the family had a heart for little people. Before I could finish my sentence, he was putting raspberry hats on all his fingers and pretending that they were pleading with him not to be eaten. Within seconds the bowl of raspberries had been devoured.
This is just one example where I succeeded in staying present with my son rather than reacting out of habit and yelling at him but I know that it made a significant impact on both of us. As parents we are brain-sculptors. Every action we take leaves a corresponding imprint on the developing brain of our children. When we model staying calm and remaining flexible or creative even, we help our children to form the same neuropathways in their brains. While none of us are perfect, our children, their vulnerable developing brains, are reason enough to strive to make every parenting moment brilliant. Like the saying goes, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you will land among the stars.”