Saturday 10 December 2016

My daughter is only six but wants to be a vegetarian

Published 25/08/2015 | 02:30

Illustration: Maisie MacNeice
Illustration: Maisie MacNeice

Clinical psychologist David Coleman advises a parent whose six-year-old daughter wants to become a vegetarian and the best way to handle a change of crèche for your child.

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Question: My six-year-old daughter is a huge animal lover. But she is so concerned about their welfare that she wants to be a vegetarian. No one in the family is a vegetarian and I am worried that she won't get a healthy diet. In the last while she is refusing to eat meat and gets very tearful at meal times. I don't know what to do.

Should I make her continue to eat meat like the rest of us? She just seems so young to be making the choice to be a vegetarian, and I could do without the hassle of cooking separately for her. What can I do?

David replies: Six does seem very young to be making such a choice. There is no doubt, also, that it can be a real hassle to accommodate a choice in meals, especially when you are cooking for a family.

Even though she is so young, it is really worth sitting down with her every so often and getting her to talk about her decision not to eat meat. The purpose of this discussion is not to dissuade her, but simply to be sure you understand exactly why she wants to be vegetarian.

For example, is it just that she doesn't like to think about the animals being hurt, or being mistreated before they are killed? Or, is it that she just doesn't like the idea of animals being killed so that she can eat them?

If it is the former, then you may be able to introduce the fact that there are lots of meat producers who care a lot about the animals' welfare and follow various ethical standards in how they raise the animals.

Then, you may be able to source such ethically-produced meat for the family. You might offset the extra cost involved (as these meats are often more expensive) by considering the saving in time and hassle of preparing her an alternative meal each day.

You may encourage her to give up meat on a phased basis, perhaps stopping eating red meat first, then white meats and then fish, allowing her the opportunity to decide to continue to eat one, or other, form of meat.

I have never been a fan of forcing children to eat anything. The real danger of making a big issue, and making her eat meat via eating the same dinner as everyone else, is that you may just intensify her resistance.

That resistance will result in further tears, maybe tantrums, and stand-offs at the dinner table. While you may be able to over-power her with the force of your will, it will come at the cost of huge conflict and lots of distress for everyone.

Again you have to balance whether the cost of that (in terms of family harmony) is worth the saving of time and effort involved in cooking her a separate non-meat dish. If you do concede to her vegetarianism, then do keep an eye on the nutritional balance of what she is eating and schedule regular check-ups with the GP to ensure she continues to meet her growth targets.

Nutritionally, there is nothing wrong with her being a vegetarian, as long as her diet is varied and includes other sources of protein and vitamins (from pulses, beans, lentils, tofu and such like) that she would otherwise get from the meat.

The Vegetarian Society of Ireland (www.vegetarian.ie) might be a useful starting point for you to understand about vegetarianism and to support your daughter.

Even if she does eat a varied and balanced diet, you may still need to supplement her diet with a multi-vitamin or essential fatty acids and again you can be guided by your GP, or a dietician, about the most suitable for her, at her age, in the absence of meat in her diet.

If you are in agreement with her desire not to eat meat, there are lots of meals you can prepare that can have the meat "on the side" such that she can choose to eat it or not eat it, without the hassle for you of having to cook a fully separate meal.

There are also lots of alternatives to meat that look, cook and taste a bit like meat, which might allow the whole family to have occasional non-meat meals.

Without wanting to pre-empt your further discussions with your daughter, it sounds like she may be the instigator of a sea change in your family mealtimes, at age six!

My daughter is moving crèche. Should I keep  it low key or talk more about it with her?

Question: Our three-year-old is due to return to crèche soon after a seven-month break while her mum was on maternity leave. She recently told us she did not want to go to a new crèche because she is "worried I won't make friends." This was a big shock to us, because she is usually very happy-go-lucky.

She liked her last crèche, but we've had to change to a new place, where her older sister already goes after school. We're not sure whether to keep low key about the move, or talk more, for fear our reassurances might only upset her further?

David replies: Yes, it can feel quite tricky at times to judge how much to say about big changes that are coming up, and when to start talking about the changes.

Naturally, we have to give children some warning about changes to their routine, or their care, because otherwise, the shock of the change (if it is as significant as a change of crèche, for example) can cause a huge deal of distress.

Small children, especially, will often react to this level of distress by acting it out in their behaviour. So you may find that when they are experiencing a lot of change, or very significant change, that they have more tantrums, more tears or are more oppositional or demanding.

Usually, once they become accustomed to the change, their behaviour will settle again.

This happens because change introduces unpredictability. Unpredictability, in turn, can create anxiety. It is the anxiety that leads children to be distressed to act out.

Naturally, if we know what to expect in a situation, we can be comfortable and we tend to feel quite secure and confident. If we don't know what to expect, however, even we can feel on edge and unsure what to say or do.

That insecurity we might feel, in such unfamiliar circumstances, can also be evident to others as we might be short, snappy or off form.

The experience is the same for children; they may just not be able to explain to us that this is what is happening to them.

The fact that any significant change, in a child's circumstances, is likely to be upsetting for them, means that we can anticipate that they may be distressed and on edge.

Knowing this, we can choose to give them time to accommodate to the change and we can also choose to give them advance warning of the change so that they can start to process what this change might mean for them. Which brings us back to your dilemma, how much more to say about the change in crèche and when to be talking about it more to your three-year-old.

I am a fan of being as honest as possible with children, as soon as possible so that we can give them enough notice of big changes that are likely to occur.

She already knows that she will be moving and has even been able to put words on one of her fears, namely that she won't be able to make new friends.

So, if you engage with her now, you allow her the time to express any fears, allowing you the opportunity to empathise with her and to soothe those fears.

Because of her age, the chats are likely to be brief. There is a danger in over-talking, or over-analysing things with young children. Your goal, in bringing up the change in crèche, is simply to give her permission to talk about it if she wants.

Try to avoid simply reassuring her that she will be fine. Instead, acknowledge that it is difficult, upsetting, scary, etc to think about being in a new place every day.

Alongside talking, and empathising with her, you might be able to show her pictures of the crèche, bring her for a visit or meet some of the other children who will be going there.

In this way, if the move to the new crèche is a full part of your family consciousness, you can create these opportunities to familiarise her with the environment, the staff, or the other children.

It seems like the move to the crèche is on her mind right now, whatever your original plan for talking to her about it. I think you should go with that flow and talk as much as she seems to want to.

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