How to Deal with Challenging Behaviour at Meal Times

Today, we are going to talk about how to deal with challenging behaviour from your toddler or preschooler at meal times.

How to Deal With Challenging Behaviour at Meal Times Video

Transcript of Video

We can divide challenging behavior up into two separate areas. Firstly, we have behavior that is surrounding food and children’s likes and dislikes of food.

Today, we are going to talk about all that challenging behaviour that is not related to food. I spend all the other videos talking about the food, so this time we’re just talking about behaviour.

Grumpy boy who doesn't want to eat his plate of vegetables. Happy boy who is eating his plate of vegetables. #toddler #fussyeater #fussytoddler #toddlerwonteat #pickyeater #parenting #positiveparenting  #healthykids #preschooler #parenting #parentingtoddler

Toddler’s Behavior During Meal Times

If we’re looking at that behaviour at meals which is not related to food, we can see two big reasons for that behaviour.

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If you are struggling to feed your toddler, then please feel free to sign up for the "Feeding Toddler Cheat Sheet".

Challenging Mealtime Behaviour Number 1: Anxiety

The first one is anxiety. We really underestimate anxiety in children and you might not realize it’s anxiety. This is the time when your toddler will say:

“I want a blue ball”.

You give them a blue bowl, but they’re already screaming.

Related: 5 Quick Wins to Help Your Fussy Eater

Flight-and-Fight Mode

What is going on is your child already has a preconceived idea of exactly what they want. When it doesn’t happen, they get really, really upset about it. They trigger their flight-and-fight mode.

When they are angry, they have adrenaline coursing around their body, they are in "runaway-from-the-bear" mode.

Logic goes out the window.

It doesn’t matter if you now give them the blue bowl, because their upper brain isn’t thinking.

Related: Picky Toddler Meal Ideas

Logic Goes Out the Window When We're Running Away from Bears

Their primeval lower limbic system is now in force and they are just running away from the bear, they’re screaming, there’s nothing logical that you can do about it.

This is really anxiety, the fight-flight response.

We see this a lot in young children, partly because they haven’t really worked out how to control these emotions. When I say “control these emotions”, these emotions are things that we need to feel. It’s good to feel emotions but not be controlled by them.

Children haven't learnt to manage their emotions yet. 

Adults Mirror Children's Emotions

We will find as adults that when we see this happening to our children, we reflect that emotion and we get triggered.

The same process starts to happen to us, so we get cross and start to scream and shout and want to run away from that bear.

We have to calm the whole thing down, otherwise, you end up with a table of screaming and shouting children.

RelatedIntroducing New Foods to Your Picky Eater

Challenging Mealtime Behaviour Number 2: Normal Toddler Restlessness

The other problem that we see is what I call "normal toddler or children restlessness" and what we expect from our children.

This might be seen in, for example, your child’s inability to sit at the table.

They want to run around and not sit at the table.

I see this particularly with my 5-year old daughter. She finds it so difficult to sit at the table.

She wants to come and go and come and go.

This is a developmental stage. All children are different and they all express themselves in different ways. It’s not that she’s not capable of sitting at the table – of course she is! She sits at the table to study at school in a different environment. But at home, she is much more relaxed and she wants to get up and down.

Happy boy eating a bowl of cereal and fruit. Grumpy girl refusing to eat her meal of chicken and vegetables. #toddler #fussyeater #fussytoddler #toddlerwonteat #pickyeater #parenting #positiveparenting  #healthykids #preschooler #parenting #parentingtoddler

Solving Mealtime Behaviour Problem 1: Addressing Child Anxiety

1. Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First

When your child starts screaming and shouting, first of all, you have to take care of yourself, because you cannot help your child when you are also in that flight-fright and running-away mode.

The number one thing you need to do is calm yourself down.

Take 5 Deep Breaths

A really good way to do this is by just taking five breaths. It sounds ridiculously easy, but it’s really effective and the more you use these techniques, the more effective you will find them.

This is also part of recognizing that you are getting upset and you are getting triggered.

First of all, put on your own oxygen mask before you can help your child.

2. Help Your Child Calm Down 

Then you want to have immediate measures to help your child. Your child is screaming and you need to help them stop screaming. That might mean taking them away from the table because it might be disrupting other people.

Go with that child and help them calm down.

Different Calming Techniques for Different Children

Sometimes, that just means waiting with them until they have expressed their anger and got it out of their system.

This may be a difficult place to be because you have to be working very hard on your own emotions to be that close to that child who is screaming and shouting and perhaps even kicking and fighting.

If you do take them away from the table that does mean that everybody else at the table can get on with their mealtime.

Your immediate aim is to calm them down and this depends on different children. You might just need them to wait until they have finished screaming while you’re there close to them and reassuring them. It depends on your child and there are different techniques.

Tactile Calming Techniques

For example, if you have a very tactile child, they might like a hug or draw a figure of 8 on them as a soothing thing.

Vestibular Calming Techniques

Or they might be more vestibular. These are the kind of kids who like to be thrown up into the air. They might like swinging or any sort of movement.

Calm Down Bottles

They might like something like a calm down bottle.

There are lots of different ways of helping your child calm down.

I love this Calm Down Kit for Older Children (by my friends and play specialists at Mosswood connections.)

Your Calming Presence Helps Your Child Calm Down (Normally)

At the end of the day, just being there and helping them to calm down even if you don’t say anything, even if you’re just there with them, is very helpful.

Of course, you want to put in long-term systems to help your child cope with whatever is going on – why they are screaming and are upset in the first place.

Long-Term Techniques for Handling an Upset Child

There are different techniques for handling an upset child. One that I find super helpful is playing.

Play Out the Problem

In acting, whatever that problem is, particularly if it’s a recurring problem with, for example, a teddy bear. Let’s say you get two teddy bears and you just go over the scene over and over again. I’ll get a teddy bear and say:

“I’m Sebastien, I’m coming to the dinner table. Oh no! My blue cup is in the wrong place. Help! Help!”

Make it fun and laugh, let him change the endings so they are learning that whatever it is that they are upset and scared about, whatever the outcome, will be okay.

Those are some fabulous ideas for this really acute emotional outbursts that we have.

Solving Meal Time Behaviour Problem 2: Developmental Behaviour

If we move on and look at appropriate behavior or developmental behavior, it might be things like using your knife and fork or saying thank you after the meal or asking to leave the table or sitting still.

The bottom line here is to have your family rules and decide on them.

Related: 5 Simple Manners that Promote Healthy Eating

Happy toddler eating from a bowl. Happy girl eating a bowl of carrots. #toddler #fussyeater #fussytoddler #toddlerwonteat #pickyeater #parenting #positiveparenting  #healthykids #preschooler #parenting #parentingtoddler

What Are Your Limits?

You need to make those limits realistic for your child. If your child does have huge problems sitting still and they need to get up and down several times during the meal, does that really matter or is that something that you can live with?

Ideally, we want children to sit at the meal and the meal to last about 20 minutes and then we all get down and stop eating. That’s in an ideal world and we don’t live in this perfect dream world where children do what we want to do all the time.

You need to make it appropriate for your child. I think also once you have decided on your limits and are quite firm with them, you don’t have to get upset. You just have to say:

“This is the limit. If you want to get down from the table, then the meal is over. You are welcome to get down but there is no more eating after that.”

Once you have this firm limit that you and your family have decided on and once you have maintained that limit, you will find that all the children will maintain the limit. If you maintain that limit for your older children, the younger ones will see what the older ones do and they will follow suit.

It’s really a matter of deciding what you think is appropriate and where you think that limit is.

I would say if you find yourself getting cross and upset that your child isn’t sticking to that limit, then you need to think about that limit and think,

“Is this realistic?”

You don’t want a power struggle. You need to start thinking:

“Why am I getting so upset about it?”

You can set the limit without getting upset. Sometimes, the reasons for why we get upset can be complicated and tricky for us to really come to terms with.

Related: Everything You Need to Know About Your Toddler Who Won’t Eat

Dealing With Challenging Behaviour at Mealtimes

Let's recap!

The two main causes of challenging behaviour are

  1. Anxiety
  2. Normal Development

The best ways to deal with challenging behaviour are:

  1. A healthy eating routine.
  2. Dealing with your own emotional triggers.
  3. Helping your child to cope with their emotions (both in the short term and the long term.)

I know that it can be challenging applying the theory! I've spend many times sat with my child as he screams about his "blue bowl" and realised that his screaming is triggering my own emotions.

Feeding Toddler Cheat Sheet

Remember that you're invited to sign up to the "Feeding Toddler Cheat Sheet and Food Diary" which out lies the 3 steps to feeding your toddler in a stress free and happy way. 

Now you'll be able to feed your child in a stress free way even when they do have challenging behaviour at meal times!



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