Mealtime manipulation

In this week’s A Problem Shared, Maryam asks for help and advice with her daughter’s control issue around food. You can find more about Maryam here, or on her blog

My adopted daughter is coming up to age 3 and since hitting 2 years old has become a problem eater.
toddler mealtime
Most toddlers are fussy with food or picky but she uses her eating (or not eating!) as control issue. She was placed with us at 14 months old from a background of neglect and experienced attachment difficulties although these have got much better now (but not disappeared). However, an underlying theme of most of her behaviour is resistance and control – and she can be very attention-hungry!

We have tried numerous things to coax her to eat without success. She will eat most food but its the speed- she has been known to take up to 2 hours for a small plate of food. Unfortunately, being human, this has at times really wound me and my husband up! We have tried timers, removing the plate after 1/2 hour, reducing the portion size, offering rewards and incentives, consequences (such as losing toys or park time). We have also placed her at a table of her own to help her concentrate on eating (she can be very easily distracted  by her siblings which doesn’t help) but to no avail.

She seems to refuse or even enjoy being able to control us and the situation by eating so slowly. We know we should not react and ignore it and not make a fuss, but it can be very hard and the times we have managed to do this successfully, she has immediately used other behaviours to gain attention and control – such as randomly wetting herself despite being toilet-trained for almost a year and largely accident free.

Any ideas on how we can help her learn that she doesn’t need to control everything and encourage her to eat more quickly? We suspect she enjoys the attention, even if its negative.

If you have any ideas or advice for Maryam, please comment below…and if you have your own problem that you’d like us to share here, please contact us.

4 thoughts on “Mealtime manipulation

  1. Sally

    Hi Maryam,
    I can only write from my own experience here, but a child who is attention-hungry and appears controlling does have attachment difficulties. In their world, if they are forgotten just for a moment then their lives are in peril. And for a neglected child, the fear of hunger and power of food is tremendous. The dinner table can really be a place of trauma for them.
    We’ve had lots of eating issues and the advice I’ve been given is to take all the emotion out, continue to therapeutically parent with all the close supervision and emotional attachment that you are already offering and these sorts of behaviours will gradually fade down. There will be times when you can’t spend hours over a meal in which case there has to be a calm warning followed by the plate being removed. Angry reactions should then be met with ‘I know this is hard for you, but there will always be enough food for you in our family’.
    It is hard to do because we are all programmed to get our children into a healthy 3 meal a day routine, no fusser eaters etc, but our children do not fit this mould very comfortably.
    I say all this as someone who has shouted and screamed over the dinner table in absolute frustration. None of it worked, one little bit. It was only when I was told by someone else to stop sweating it that I realised I could stop ‘taking the bait’ and then things got better. Slow process though!
    I wish you the best with this. Food is a really hard one.
    And if I’m way off target with this, please forgive me,

  2. Rachel

    Oh Maryam, so sorry to hear about this. If it’s any consolation you’re not alone – I’ve got that particular t-shirt (along with many others, it seems).

    It sounds as though you’ve been trying all the right things. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. Most of them didn’t work for us. The only thing that seemed to help much was pointedly praising our daughter’s siblings for eating nicely. And strictly no pudding if you don’t finish your tea – very old-school, but effective for us!

    Sally’s comment about the way children like your daughter (and mine) feel they can’t risk being forgotten about for one second is spot on. I definitely agree with her about taking the emotion out of it and trying to remain matter-of-fact. It all became much easier when I stopped stressing and started modelling calm, sensible behaviour at the table myself instead of allowing her to be the centre of attention at every meal. Yes, we are almost pre-programmed to feed our children three squares a day, but in most cases kids will eat when they’re hungry – as long as she’s healthy and gaining weight, not actually losing it, she’s fine.

    Does she go to nursery or pre-school? Our daughter’s eating improved a lot when she started having meals and snacks with her peers in nursery then in school, as if she didn’t keep up she got left behind when everyone else went off to play. Perhaps this reinforced the routine of sitting down calmly and eating with others without the element of trying to monopolise our attention.

    I’ve noticed that our three all have different daily patterns – the eldest is ravenous at 3.30 after school, whilst our daughter is a big breakfast eater (she has been known to put away 5 Weetabix…). So I give her a big breakfast, and smaller, more “achievable” meals at other times. Have you noticed any daily ups and downs in her appetite that you can exploit?

    Good luck with this – it’s a slow process indeed, so take a deep breath, relax and conserve your energy. You’ll be fine. All of you xxx

  3. Jemma

    I really feel for you. We struggled with meals at first and the best advice we had was that children won’t starve themselves, they will eat if they are hungry so don’t stress out about getting them to eat everything on their plate or worry about what they have eaten. We take an approach of lots of positive comments for when she eats nicely, but never praise her just for eating. Eating in our house is just something you do, something to be enjoyed, but not something to be congratulated for. We praise her for trying new things and for using her fork we chat and distract. If she refuses something because she doesn’t like it, we leave it in front of her and offer a banana. It must be hard having her eating really slowly. When Squiblet’s breakfast takes over an hour (she’s currently like the hungry caterpillar) I just potter about in the kitchen getting on with my chores and chatting away with her. She soon lets me know if she is bored and/or full up.

    It’s easy for me to say, and much less easy to do, but you have to be the ones to take she emotion out of eating. If there’s nothing to struggle against then she can have no struggle. Things like getting her to help prepare meals and offering limited choices or a special plate might help.

    I’m no expert….just chipping in.

    And poor you. It sounds like very hard work, when probably pre-adoption meal times were calm and pleasurable!


    Jemma x

  4. Threebecomefour

    I’m in this particular boat with you too Maryam and i feel for you. Katie and mealtimes are the bane of my life. I found having school meals has helped a lot and now I just remove her food and throw it away if she’s not eating or messing about with it. I just pick it up and throw it away. I’m so fed up with yoghurt everywhere when she spins the bowl, all for attention. Everything with Katie is for attention at the moment, obviously worse since Pip arrived. I think you’ve been given great advice. Just walk away, throw the food away after a reasonable time and no treats or snacks between meals until she sorts herself out. No guilt for mummy either or worrying that she’s hungry. I can understand your worry with the background of neglect but this issue is more about attention and less about food I suspect. The soiling will stop when she’s not getting attention from it. We’ve has a resurgence of that although she’s doing it subtly with follow through rather than a full poo.

    Reading your post has given me some clarity on the issues here. I hope ou get the same.

    Goodness they do like to keep us on our toes and deep in therapy don’t they?


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