I love family rituals and one of the easiest ones to incorporate in our day has been to eat our evening meal together around a table. I am usually able to convince all and sundry that electronic entertainment can stay off during these times and so they become times of emotional attachment and emotional comfort, not times of competing with distractions and stress.
Ed is almost four yo and is just now accepting that he is to join us and will stay at the table the whole meal time. This is developmental.
Not wanting to sit at the table during meal times is particularly common in children younger than four. It’s a long time for a small person to hold their body in check and there can be so many other things going on for them, that they find it difficult to focus on the task at hand, even if they are really hungry. Especially if they are really hungry.
Like all other times of tantrums, this is when knowing and accepting our children for who they are (as opposed to who we would like them to be) and knowing what’s been going on for them during the day/week/month is the place to start with management and/or prevention. Then we need to factor in a bit of human biology – what I call The Triad of Internal Drives.
The Triad of Internal Drives always works in the same order: Physical Needs dominate Emotional Needs dominate Rational Needs. This is human biology and no amount of reason or logic or parenting advice or wishes or societal demands can over-ride these.
What does that mean in practical terms?
1. Well, if our child is experiencing stress due to: hunger; tiredness; overwhelmed sensations from doing too much; overwhelmed sensations from too many flashing lights or loud noises; too many choices; not enough running around time, etc, it will be much harder for their weaker Rational Brain System to over-ride the more powerful Physical Brain System. They might consciously want to join in but they are dominated by physical discomfort and CAN’T.
2. If they are feeling emotionally unsure of their connection with us due to: being separated from us during the day; us having focussed on another person or chore; us being distracted by our own dramas and needs; us rushing around to get through what needs to be done; long term feelings of disconnection, etc, then it is much harder for their weaker Rational Brain System to over-ride their more powerful Emotional Brain System even if their physical needs have largely been met during the day. An emotionally distressed small child CAN’T comply with a Rational Expectation and even older children can struggle.
3. They also have to use their Rational Brain to ‘choose’ to sit with the family. In our house, it is expected that everyone will (most often) eat their evening meal together. This poses a chance of a Challenge Tantrum for Ed, just as it would for any other small child or for people who this is a new ritual. (Where the Rational Brain System has to over-ride the other brain systems for a longer period of time that is physically comfortable.)
3B. For our two older boys (11 and 8 yo) this expectation and ritual has become a habit and they no longer have to use their Rational Brain System to over-ride their other brain systems. (Unless they are exceptionally tired, overwhelmed etc.) This ritual is automated in their brain so they don’t have to think consciously through all the expectations of (somewhat) decent table manners, appropriate discussions (pretty much anything except personal comments), sitting together until the meal is finished, blessing at the start and thank-you, and carrying of plates into the kitchen at the end.
So how do we approach a small child who is developmentally able or almost able to manage a whole meal with the family but is being unco-operative?
There is actually a very simple series of steps to go through:
1. How stressed due to physical needs is the child? If physical needs are dominant consider letting the expectation be less or remove it all together. (Ed had a banana and glass of milk for dinner the other night and went off to sleep not long afterwards. He was too overwhelmed by his exhaustion to manage eating something he wasn’t 100% excited about.)
2. How stressed due to emotional needs is the child? A small child who has been separated from Mum all day, or who is feeling otherwise emotionally unsettled, may well want to sit on her lap to eat. It‘s OK and not life threatening for the child to do so. They won’t want to that when they are teenagers, promise. And allowing this stops a lot of hassle for us in the long run because their brain development can become more efficient.
3. Use what ever strategy you see fit to keep them conscious of their need to stay put. We use bribery and corruption: ice-cream in a cone for dessert…or not. This is not about manipulation – it’s about helping Ed to stay in a state of conscious awareness around his behaviour and the expectation until this pattern is automated enough that it is no longer a conscious choice but a non-conscious, natural and normal part of his day.
3B. Punishment/Consequences (whatever you want to call them) can work, if that’s how you roll. Our older boys, for example, know there are certain table manners which are compulsory and lack thereof result in extra dishes to dry. This is not about us being mean or nasty, or wanting to hurt them because they’re annoying us, or teaching them a lesson because they need to be berated into behaving properly. It’s a simple strategy to help them remain aware of their eating habits until they become automated.
3C We also have a ‘nothing else to eat’ before bedtime rule too. This is again not out of meanness or contempt for them but because, as the adults in the house, we know that eating their healthier food choices is vital for their good health and wellbeing. Not eating their evening meal and then pigging out on sandwiches or cake is not OK. They simply cover their plate with a napkin and can return to it any time before bedtime that they get the munchies.
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