This is the last post in our series on picky eaters. The third type of picky eating is undisciplined eating. These children only eat what and when they want due to a lack of discipline.
If food allergies are accompanied by fear an sensory defensive eating by guilt and shame, then undisciplined eating is often accompanied by anger or indifference in the parent.
It is important to understand that food allergies and intolerances and sensory defensive eating must be ruled out before you decide that the reason for picky eating is undisciplined eating.
Undisciplined eaters are ruled by their own passions and desires. It is a dangerous place to be. They often struggle with their weight. This does not mean that all obese or underweight children are undisciplined. There might be other underlying health issues in these children and it is important to identify those first.
Reasons for undisciplined eating
There are a few reasons for undisciplined eating:
- Emotional eating happens when someone eats because they are sad or stressed or lonely or frustrated. Most people can identify with this type of eating. This is when we grab for the chocolate or chips or ice cream. And the Coke, the cookies or the sweets. Emotional eating is a habit that is often established by the parents when they comfort their children by giving them something to eat when they are sad.
- Then there are the people who eat when they are bored. They don’t know what to do and so they eat.
- Next there are the attention seekers. These are often children who crave attention and then they will eat or not eat just to get some sort of attention from anybody. This is often a problem that leads to eating disorders in teenage girls.
- Body shaming is a serious, serious issue that often leads to seemingly highly disciplined eating but it is eating that is still ruled by the eater’s own passions.
- Finally there are the manipulators. These children want to force their parents or carers to give in to something and they use eating to do so.
Good eating discipline
I want to remind you again about what Charlotte Mason says: Hunger and thirst should not rule us.
Actually, establishing good eating habits, laying down a routine and sticking to it is already establishing good eating discipline. A parent will know in their heart when it is a discipline issue, because it will not be the only discipline issue you face with your child. Poor discipline manifests in many areas of life.
How to address undisciplined eating
Let’s have a look at how parents can address these issues. Because undisciplined eating requires action in the first place from the parents.
Most people indulge in some form of emotional eating. When we celebrate a holiday, it is crowned with some sort of feast. When we are happy we grab something to eat. Sadness leads us to the fridge. And stress! Anything that will keep our jaws busy…
My grandfather was a very wise man. He loved the Lord and was a teacher who had studied some psychology. He had a deep understanding of behavioral issues in people and especially children. When I was a young girl he taught me something. Food is not going to provide lasting comfort. Only Jesus can do that. This is what Jesus meant when He spoke to the woman at the well.
Jesus answered, “If you drink from Jacob’s well you’ll be thirsty again and again, but if anyone drinks the living water I give them, they will never thirst again and will be forever satisfied! For when you drink the water I give you it becomes a gushing fountain of the Holy Spirit, springing up and flooding you with endless life!”John 4:13-14 TPT
You are probably an emotional eater
You will know when your children are emotional eaters because honestly, you probably are one too. This is a challenge that the parent needs to address first. Learn to find true comfort and then show your child the way. Identify the source of the emotion, which is often sadness, and deal with it. If the source of the sadness is too big for you to deal with, get help. But do not allow sadness to fester. It can lead to depression. If it is frustration, what is the source of frustration? Or anger?
The thing to understand is that comfort food is not going to solve the problem. It might provide momentary relief like alcohol and drugs but the relief never lasts. And it might lead to other problems if unchecked.
No, identify the source of emotional eating and deal with it.
This is a good habit to start at a young age. To identify emotions, find the source. If it is a good thing, remember it. If it is a bad thing, deal with it. At a young age problems and emotions are still easy to identify. Then it becomes a skill that develops as the child grows. In the teenage years, when problems seem insurmountable, this skill is really needed. If you started at a young age, it will be there.
Why does comfort food provide comfort?
Have you ever wondered what it is in comfort foods that provides comfort? There is more than one element to it. Some of it is chemically induced. The sugar or caffeine releases endorphins, the happy hormone, and it provides relief. There is a physical part to it as well, which few people realize. Chewing stimulates the proprioceptive sense. I will explain more about the seven senses (no, we don’t have only five) in another post. Suffice to say that proprioceptive input is calming and helps us to organize. So, there is some reason behind stress eating. This is also often the reason some people chew gum like other people smoke!
But, you can get better proprioceptive input from exercise, like running or jumping on the trampoline or skipping rope. If you are stressed and start grabbing for food, stop. Take a deep breath and a step back. Put on your running shoes and do a quick run around the block. Or take out your rope and skip a hundred times. You will feel much better than food will make you feel. Not only will you get the proprioceptive input you need but also a bit of extra oxygen to help you think clearly. You might think that there is no time for such foolishness. But you are wrong. The little bit of a break will often give you new perspective on the stressful challenge you are facing. Coupled with the proprioceptive input and oxygen, you will solve it so much quicker.
The second reason for undisciplined eating is boredom. It starts like this. Mom is busy. The children are bored and start whining. Mom gets frustrated and send them to the kitchen for a snack. After a while they just skip the mom part and go straight to the kitchen. This is a bad habit.
Boredom has one solution. Action. Not reaction but rather pro-action. The parent has to be prepared with a number of things to address boredom with. And no, screen time does not count. It makes the boredom worse because it does not require much action. Don’t make a mistake, I enjoy a lazy evening in front of the television but it is not the solution for boredom.
Boredom is solved by physical activity
Most children who are bored actually need a physical activity. As I explained before, physical activity stimulates the happy hormone and provides extra oxygen. The point is that the parent must be prepared and ready. The first time you begin to hear the children becoming fidgety and difficult, before they even have the opportunity to say that they are bored, start a quick game of touchers. It doesn’t even have to take long. Have a quieter follow-up activity ready if it is needed, but it might not even be needed. Or tickle the children until they cry with laughter. My mom always sat on her knees on the floor and let my brother and myself lie on each side and then she would tickle us until we could no longer breathe. That would be the end of any unhappiness. Have a hoop in your driveway or swing-ball on the lawn.
The secret is that the parent or caregiver must be ready with an option before the boredom sets in. Do not ask the children if they want. Simply tell them this is what is going to happen now. But do not send them away on their own if they are already at this point. Parents often say they do not have time to play with the children. If you do not play with them when they feel like this, you are going to sit with fighting children on your hands. You will not be able to concentrate and your day will turn sour. Take the 15 or 20 minutes needed to play with them and save the rest of your day.
Children (and adults) who use food to get attention do not feel loved. They do not feel special and they use food to get attention. You know, it does not take much effort to hug your children a number of times during the day. Or to simply touch them. My dad was not a great hugger but at dusk we would sit on the couch, listening to classical music and he would just play with my hair. It made my feel sooo special and loved.
A simple, “how was your day” makes anyone feel important. Take a minute or two to comment on work well done; care taken when dressing; schoolwork that was completed; laugh at a funny comment; saying please and thank you. Do not always be the one that insists on good manners but use good manners when talking to your children. Make a point of listening with undivided attention when children are talking, preferably at their eye level. Such attention makes people (not only children) feel accepted, respected and loved.
This is another area where we have to understand that only God can satisfy our craving for acceptance and love.
The next reason for undisciplined eating is body shaming. Body shaming often leads to terrible consequences. This is one of those areas where people do not count the cost of their words. One can never successfully shame someone into the correct behavior! Just listen to how that sounds… successfully shame… No, it is not possible. Unfortunately body shaming often starts at home. Parents or siblings tease another one about their weight. Or when children fight (which they do in the best of households) and then deliberately hurt one another by talking about the other’s weight. And you know what the sad thing is? Years later, when one looks at photographs, you wonder why on earth anybody could think that the other person was fat! But then the damage has already been done.
It destroys the self-image of the person who is shamed. They never feel good enough, pretty enough or loved. And so they eat to feel better. Or, they stop eating to lose weight, thinking that will make them feel better. But they can never become thin enough. Or pretty enough. And so they control their eating habits even more until it becomes such a vicious circle that they cannot escape.
Never, ever shame a child about anything and most definitely not their weight. No matter how under- or overweight they are. It is difficult enough to grow up. Do not add an unnecessary burden to that.
So what do you do if your child is underweight or overweight? Find the reason for it. Is there a health reason? Address the health issue. Is there a food allergy or intolerance? Discover it and then avoid those foods by replacing them with something better. You can read more about that in Part 1 of this series. Is it a sensory defensive issue? Read about it in Part 2 of this series. Is it an emotional issue? Identify the emotions and address the source of the problem. If you are not able to do that, get help from a professional person.
Take a good look at yourself
Also, have a very good look at yourself and your own behavior. Is your pantry stocked with unhealthy choices and your child free to grab just whatever they want whenever they want? It is good discipline for children to ask permission before they take anything from the pantry. Is there good eating habits in your household? Do you have a routine? Or do you wait for everyone to get hungry before there is food on the table? Do you eat when you are frustrated, sad, or angry? Are you obsessed with your weight? Are you constantly dieting? What is it that you are showing your child that is important? Can only slim children be loved but there is no love for a plump child? Is weight more important than character? What is the message you are giving your child?
Open the communication channels between you and your child. The Bible talks about speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). But think carefully about it before you do. Do you need to establish a good relationship first? Does your child need to be accepted or loved unconditionally first? Does your child need to know who they are in Christ? Do you have healthy routines at home? And healthy food? It is only when these things are in place and your child trusts you implicitly that you can talk about weight. We will talk more about this conversation in another post.
The final reason for undisciplined eating is manipulation. These are children who will eat or not eat in order to get you to do something. Parents and caregivers know most of the time when children are trying to manipulate them. The Cambridge dictionary defines manipulation as “controlling someone or something to your own advantage, often unfairly or dishonestly“. Manipulators try to force people to do what they want. It is like blackmail. They are pulling the strings.
Children are born manipulators. It’s just there. It is not a skill that they have to acquire. They have it already. It is a bad habit that they have to unlearn. And it is the parents’ responsibility to stop this type of behavior at an early age. You do not need to punish a manipulator. Just laugh and say you will not fall for that. Do they want to try in a better way? Then you stick to it. Never give in to manipulation. Because once you do, it is very difficult to stop.
Undisciplined eating… parents’ responsibility
I want to come back to what I said in the beginning. Undisciplined eating is in the first place the parents’ responsibility. True, at some stage we have to take responsibility for our own eating habits but this is not something that one can expect children to do on their own. Good eating habits is a skill that children learn over years of good eating habits at home and parents modelling correct behavior.
Undisciplined eating can have serious consequences that can become a lifelong burden. Don’t saddle your child up with it. Take responsibility today.