Monday 19 February 2018

My child is overeating and misbehaving, what should I do?

David Coleman

David Coleman

My daughter turned two one month ago, and she is overweight for her age. She receives well-balanced meals throughout the day and a treat afterward but still scours the fridge for treats. We have to lock the fridge over this.

Nobody can eat in our house without my little girl wanting whatever they are having. When we say "no" to her, she screams and sticks her fingers in her throat to make herself vomit. She is also hitting us lately.

She is sleeping very little -- an hour in the afternoon and is still awake at 1am at night. We are struggling to tire her out due to this horrible Irish weather where nobody is getting out of the house.

My partner is starting to become depressed over all of this. My daughter is also on Losec medication for acid reflux, which she must take in the morning. We discovered that she is lactose intolerant when she was three weeks old. What can we do with her?

It sounds like there is a lot going on for your two-year-old, so I'll comment on each part separately. With regard to her food and eating, have you had her examined by your public health nurse, GP or the area medical officer to determine whether she is overweight?

There are specific centile charts to determine how normal, under- or over-weight babies and children are. If she hasn't been medically assessed as overweight, then I do encourage you to bring her to your local health centre where a public health nurse can weigh her to see if she actually is overweight.

Babies and toddlers need fat as part of their natural growth and development so it is easy to misjudge their comparative size and, consequently, it's really important to know if your daughter actually has a problem or not. If indeed she is medically considered overweight, then I presume you have had contact with a dietician. If this is the case, then I am amazed that you still have any treats in the house, never mind that she gets one after every meal.

It seems to me that she knows there are treats to be had and feels frustrated that she isn't allowed to have them. However, clearing your house of treats (which might mean a positive shift in everyone's eating habits!) will mean that she will quickly learn that there is no point in protesting at the fridge because there is nothing sweet to be had.

Maybe this is an opportunity to look at your whole family's eating habits. After all, you can't expect your child to eat healthily if you don't.

From how you describe her screaming, hitting and sleeping habits, you may need a bit of a root-and-branch approach to managing her.

Naturally, because she is two, she believes that she can have, and will get, things her own way. I'd guess she has learned that if she protests enough you and/or your partner will eventually give in to her demands.

The toddler years are a naturally challenging time for parents because we need to help them learn that there are times they must wait, times they can't have what they want and times that they may not do what they want.

If parents are very stressed during this phase, it just adds to the distress of their children.

So, before focusing on the problem behaviour, you and your partner should consider all the good things about your daughter.

List all the nice things you enjoy doing with her and the nice times that you spend as a family. Then try to maximise the amount of time you can spend doing these things. Even reminding yourselves that she is essentially good will be a helpful exercise.

Two-year-olds need lots of adult interaction. It can be tempting to try to get her settled in front of the TV or involved in some kind of game to keep her occupied and out of your hair.

While this may give you some peace it also means that she is not getting any positive interaction with you. She needs to have fun and good times with you to balance the times when you need to tell her "no".

If you build up the positive times of playing with her and getting her involved in some of the household chores that you must do, you will find that you actually will have a much more positive relationship with her.

Similarly, it is worth investing in a full set of waterproofs and some wellies for her -- then you can get out no matter what the weather's like. In my experience small children never complain about rain, muck or puddles. In fact, many of them revel in it!

Don't allow her to hit you. If she does, then you need to say "no hitting" very clearly and prevent her from being able to hit further, perhaps by gently but firmly holding her hands, or moving out of her reach.

Saying "no" but not preventing the behaviour doesn't give a strong enough message to children that the behaviour is not allowed.

With her sleeping, look at the timing of her naps. The afternoon sounds a bit late to me to be trying to give her a rest. She probably needs a nap earlier so that you can begin her bedtime earlier too. When you then put her to bed at night, you may need to stay with her in the room so that she gets a clear message that once bedtime comes she stays in her room.

If she climbs out of the bed, then you put her back in. If she screams you stay near, but don't interact with her. Your presence is a support for her and lets her know she is not being totally ignored.

So much of her behaviour sounds like it has developed as a method of hooking you and your partner into responding to her. She has gotten into many bad habits but the good news is that all habits can be changed.

Given how many different areas of her behaviour you are trying to change, I suggest that you and your partner go along to a parenting course. Not only will you get some good advice about ways of dealing with, and responding to, your daughter, you will also meet other mums and dads who can be a real support to remind you that so much of what you are experiencing is normal.

In the comparatively short space here, I can only scratch the surface of some of the changes that might be helpful for you. I do think that some more guidance and support will help you to get your relationship with her back on to a more positive track.

David Coleman is a clinical psychologist, broadcaster and author. Queries and issues can only be addressed through the column and David regrets he cannot enter into personal correspondence

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