Parents of kids who are difficult eaters, put in tons and tons of effort and time at meal-times trying to get something into their stomach.
With fussy eaters, parents use a variety of strategies to get them to eat.
- Gentle coaxing, offering treats or gifts, distracting with gadgets etc;
- Punishing, spanking, time outs; or
- Forcing food into the child’s mouth against his will
However, whether gentle or aggressive, these approaches are all essentially just different strategies of force feeding a child to eat.
One the unrecognised aspects of childhood is that children are naturally “neophobic” – a fear or dislike of anything new or unfamiliar.
This tendency tends to peak between 2 and 6 years of age. At this age they can be very adamant about not trying new foods. Parents need to understand that this is part of a child’s normal development.
Trusting their child’s instincts without forcing or fighting it will help lessen this tendency over time. Forcing their child will do the opposite and tends to keep this stage going on for longer.
Harmful Effects of Force Feeding Children
Most parents will understandably force-feed because they want their children to grow up to be healthy and strong.
They are worried their child is not getting all the nutrition and vitamins they need for their growing body. So while the intentions seem very good and noble, the path of force feeding, however leads to problems and unhealthy food habits.
Here are some of the common harmful effects of force feeding children:
- Forcing your child to eat takes away that basic sense of control from the child. This could make them feel really irritated about meal times and leave them with a sense of feeling helpless.
- The power battle only intensifies as children grow-up and they start to think of novel ways to trick the parent and take back the control over their choice of eating.
- As children are constantly forced to eat from a young age, they lose the opportunity to learn to self-regulate and to listen to their body’s signals of hunger and feeling full.
- Many kids who are forced to eat will never seem to have a natural appetite or enjoyment for food.
- Interestingly, children who eat only when forced, tend to eat lesser and tend to choose lesser healthy foods as they grow up and thereby don’t get the adequate nutrition their bodies need – counterintuitive to the very objectives of the concerned parents.
- Meal times are never looked upon with joy and become a chore. Such children sometimes grow up with strong dislikes to meal times and gravitate towards unhealthy eating as adults.
- Often times force fed kids develop eating disorders as teenagers and adults.
Severe methods when applied over an extended period of time can have very serious life-long implications and is also generally indicative of other deeper issues in the parent child relationship.
Similarly, gentle force feeding methods have also been shown to have long term negative effects on the child’s relationship with food. Recent studies have shown a direct connection on how force feeding in childhood can lead to severe eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia or obesity in teenage years and/or adulthood.
Encouraging children to develop healthy eating habits
Now that we know that forcing, distracting, bribing our children to eat does not help them in the short or long terms here are some ways to encourage healthy eating habits from a young age:
- Allow your children to be in control of how much they eat.
- Offer meals at regular intervals, however keep the portions small.
- Its most important that you display eating habits since kids imitate their parents behaviour. Let them see you enjoying your food, and more importantly eating a wide variety of foods.
- Avoid comparing your child to others. Each child is different and approaches food differently.
- A child will only eat what is offered to him. So always offer only healthy options.
Teaching our children to recognize and accept the feeling of fullness and the feelings of hunger are vital to create healthy appetite and healthy eating habits.
As a parent our role is to offer healthy food and teach good manners and respect for food. When we do that successfully, our children will naturally gravitate towards healthy eating habits.
The author, Ajita Seethepalli is the Founder of KidsCenter.in and practises as a professional Child Sleep and Child Food Habits Consultant. She is the creator of the Sleep Right and Eat Right programs for children. Ajita’s work is based on the premise that food and sleep are inextricably linked in terms of their importance to a child’s life, physical growth, and cognitive and behavioural development.