Friday 14 December 2018

Dear David Coleman: My son is refusing to eat his dinner. What can I do?

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David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. My 20-month-old has stopped eating dinners in the last two weeks. At first he would take a spoon of his dinner and then spit it out, now he just shakes his head and closes his mouth. I've tried sitting with him and eating the same food, disguising his food and refusing foods other than his dinner (he went to bed without dinner twice!). He has a great breakfast and will have cheese, crackers, pittas etc. for his lunch. He is currently having a cereal or toast for his dinner. I got really upset the other night and was reduced to tears. I really need some help.

David replies: It can be quite frightening for parents when their toddlers go on what is sometimes termed a "food strike". I think we have a natural instinct to want our children to eat, as we believe that if they don't eat, they will die.

So when they stop eating, it is completely understandable that parents get anxious.

Unfortunately, in many cases, our anxiety leads us to react by trying to cajole, trick, force or even coerce our child to eat. Our need to see them eating healthily drives a whole range of behaviours, some like you described (disguising food), or reverting to feeding them, or getting angry and threatening consequences if they don't eat.

Any of these kinds of attempts to make your child eat can run the risk of setting up really negative associations for your child with food and eating. Instead of food being linked with taste, companionship, fun and pleasure, it becomes linked to pressure, distress and a "battle of wills".

Most children, at some stage between one and two years of age, will seem to go off their food, changing their eating habits quite significantly. Their rate of physical and brain development slows down at this time, after the huge development during infancy and pre-toddlerhood. As their bodies don't have the same energy requirements, nature tells them to eat less.

Changes in their eating may also coincide with an increasing independence and a growing desire to be more in control of their own experiences. Combine these two factors with a general busyness and excitement about the world and other (possibly more fun?) experiences to be had, and it is no surprise that mealtime can lose their engagement for a child.

The good news about your son is that he hasn't stopped eating in entirety. He has just stopped eating what you call dinners. You don't say, but I assume dinner refers to perhaps meat or fish of some kind and some vegetables, rice or pasta.

It is never helpful to look at children's eating and nutrition at a single point in time. It is much more helpful to look at their nutritional intake over the course of a week or even several weeks.

So, at an individual meal, a child might eat a very restricted (even low calorie) amount of food. But over time we can see that children (left to their own devices) will eat a range of foods and maintain relative balance nutritionally.

The key for us is not to panic, but simply to keep offering our children a range of healthy foods. It may be that your son would like to shift to more of a "grazing" pattern of eating where he eats when he is hungry, rather than when we determine it is a mealtime. Your focus on continuing to eat with him, making the meals a social occasion, is also helpful as it enables him to see healthy eating in action (assuming that is what you are role modelling). It is important though that you take pressure off him with regard to what he eats.

It won't help if you are sitting with him, sternly telling him to eat up, or threatening him if he doesn't eat. So be careful not to get stuck into that "battle of wills" that I referred to earlier. That is more likely to turn him off food than to encourage him to eat it. By keeping the mealtimes light, offering him small portions that he is free to eat or not, you give him the best chance of clicking back into his old eating habits.

If he starts to develop colds more easily, or loses weight, then you might want to chat to your GP about an appropriate nutritional or vitamin supplement. But, assuming his weight and growth continue to develop healthily, then you may need to do nothing more try to stay calm and wait.


My four-year-old disrupts playtime. It's like she has been sad and put out since her sibling was born

Q. My four-year-old daughter has a problem with playtime. Or at least she has a problem when she plays with other kids. She'll always try to disrupt play rather than join in and play cooperatively. For example, she would sit at the top of the slide to block others going down it. When I ask her why, she doesn't know why she does it. She always looks sad anyway and I rarely see her laughing. She's like this since her sibling arrived when she was 16 months old. I think she is still put out by that. I'd love any advice to get her to play better.

David replies: Perhaps, before we deal with the play issue, we might look at bit more at your daughter's reaction to becoming an older sister. At 16 months of age she was still very young and comparatively tiny to have to accommodate her little sister or brother.

That transition can be hard for any older sibling. Sometimes when the gap between siblings is larger, the older child can be more used to being the only child and so it can feel even harder to accept a new baby encroaching on their space. But, at least when they are a bit older, they may be able to make better sense of the experience.

Your daughter does seem to have been shaken by the arrival of her sibling. You note that she has seemed sad and "put out" by having a little baby brother or sister. I'm guessing that, because of her age, you probably never felt like you had a chance to help her process this.

It might be worth spending a bit of time doing that now. I think it was Faber and Mazlish, in their book Siblings Without Rivalry, who spoke about the idea that until a child has had a chance to air their negative feelings about a sibling, there is little emotional space available to consider their positive feelings about that sibling. I think the phrase they use is something like, "it's not until the bad feelings come out that the good feelings can get in".

Even though she's still only four, I think it will really help her if you can empathise with how difficult she may have found it to adjust to having a sibling, and to empathise with how upsetting it may have been for her.

We can make a good guess at the kinds of difficulties that she may have faced; less time available for her with you perhaps, lots of attention being shown to the baby, delays in having her needs met because the baby's needs may have competed, and feeling like everyone loves the baby more than her. If you talk with her about some of these kinds of things, it may free her up to talk about what that "put outness" is all about, for her especially. If she feels that you are both willing and able to understand her experience, it will probably make a huge difference to her and how she feels, including any feelings of jealousy or resentment that she might then act out when in the playground.

A lot of her struggles to play cooperatively might be a reflection of how she feels within the family. We can often hypothesise that children's behaviour is an unconscious way for them to try to show how they feel by making other people feel the same way. So, when she disrupts others, it might reflect how disrupted she feels.

When she doesn't allow herself to be accepted or included in others' play, it might be an indicator of how she feels that she isn't accepted since her sibling came along. So, bringing some of these feelings out into the open, by suggesting them to her, may mean that she no longer needs to display them in her actions.

It is also important to avoid being angry with her when she disrupts other children. Do correct her behaviour if it is really disruptive, and show her how to play more cooperatively, but be sure to be warm and understanding in how you correct her.

Invest your time in building, or rebuilding, your own relationship with her. Try to create opportunities where you can play with her, individually and with her and her sibling. During those times, focus on games that involve lots of warm physical contact, lots of eye contact, lots of smiling and lots of fun. Reconnecting in these ways might also help her feel fully accepted and part of her family.


If you have any parenting queries for David Coleman, please email Please note that David cannot enter into individual correspondence

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