Feb. ’19 Q&A – Food Demands, Imagination and Fear, and Religious Doubt

Stop Catering to Food Demands

Q. My kids, 5 and 3, have had catered food of their choice their whole lives, and we can’t figure out how to switch without enduring weeks and months of misery at the table. When we tried a year ago, we gave up after about a week and a half of screaming and crying at every dinner. After a long hiatus, I tried again, thinking the kids would help plan the menu and cook. They agreed to try a homemade mac and cheese. They took a few bites, declared it disgusting, and started crying for their usual (pbj for my son, pizza for my daughter). We also had other items they like on offer—pineapple and bread—but they wouldn’t eat. After 30 minutes of crying, my husband and I agreed to give in but to get advice on how else we might do this more effectively, and less painfully. An additional challenge is that we are vegetarian and tend to prefer healthy, fairly sophisticated foods. Since they won’t eat mac and cheese, they are unlikely to eat barley pilaf with kale, shiitake and marinated tofu. I’m willing to compromise my own palette to aid their development, but I end up feeling quite resentful when I am stuck eating mac and cheese (even with veggies) when they don’t even eat it.

A. You may not find a less painful way. But isn’t it worth dealing with the tough job now rather than continuing to raise children with restricted and demanding eating habits? You have 3 and 5 y.olds, not 8 and 10. Habits can change quite quickly. I would suggest that you talk with your husband first to make a plan and a commitment to support each other, and then present it to the kids. Talk about your plan rather than suddenly change the meals. Tell them they are now old enough to start developing more food tastes, which they WILL do. Acknowledge that it will be hard, they won’t like it right away, and that you completely understand. Let them know you will be fixing A meal for the whole family, and they can choose to eat it or not. Together create a list of foods that would be acceptable as side dishes that you might add to the meal. Then it is up to them to choose whether or not they will eat. That part is their job, not yours.

Allowing them to deal with THEIR problem is the hardest part for you. You must KNOW that they will not starve themselves; that they will be fine. They are protesting what they have learned. They have gotten exactly what they wanted and now they aren’t. Of course, they will be mad about it. Expect it and work with your husband to support each other in your resolve. You are not starving them. You are including at least one or two foods that you know they will eat. If they don’t, it’s in protest. That’s okay. Protest only works when you end up getting what you are protesting about. Soon they will get tired of protesting when it isn’t getting them what they want. Then play games at the table like “I spy” and take all focus off food. Don’t talk about food. Make mealtime a fun place to be whether they eat or not. Eat with fingers, chopsticks, toothpicks, toy silverware, anything that would make it more like a game.

They may not eat to make a point. And then beg for a snack at bedtime. Choose a time when “the kitchen is closed” and announce it with a last call. If they would like to get themselves cereal, they can do that.

Give them outlets for their anger—drawing how they feel, jumping on a cushion, punching a pillow—be their ally in their frustration and anger. But let them know that you are going to stay the course. Since you have backtracked before, they will fight you hard believing you will give in again. Stay as neutral as you can, don’t engage in their arguments except to listen, and keep the message clear that you are going to stick with the plan. “I get it. You don’t like this new plan. And I know you can do it.”

Be sure and regroup after a long crying session. Talk about how hard it is when things change. Have a good cuddle session after emotions have calmed and the pre-frontal cortex (thinking brain) can come into play again.

In your discussion with them, talk about everyone’s ideas of what should happen when they do nothing but cry. You might suggest that they can cry, but they will need to do it somewhere away from the table, so dinnertime still works for you and your husband—it’s about finding balance. They can choose to feel the way they want, but they don’t have the right to ruin it for you. Say all this very neutrally so you don’t get caught up in your fears.

Absolutely they can learn to eat the food you are eating. Perhaps adjust slightly in the beginning but resist the temptation to compromise what you want for what they want. Know that it is their problem and that you compound that problem for them when you make it yours. Be compassionate and understanding of their problem, but do not fix it. They will adjust but only when you hand over their problem to them. As long as they know that you will fix it, they will blame it on you forever. Courage! You don’t have to be cruel to do this. But you do have to have confidence in yourself and in them, that you are doing the right thing, and they will learn to be good eaters.

Imagination and Fear

Q. Our 6-year-old son is terrified of the dark. He won’t go into any room alone if the lights are out, and even in the daytime he wants someone to sit at the bottom of the stairs when he has to use the bathroom upstairs. We have tried every tool in our box and nothing seems to be effective—reward motivation, favorite stuffed animals, having the pets join him, lights on, letting our 3 year old sleep in his room, nightlights, trying to teach him to think of funny or happy things, etc. It breaks my heart when he calls to me in the night, and I see him lying there for hours terrified. He has started trying to wake his brother, and even slips into his toddler bed with him. His dreams have always been incredibly detailed. Creativity is one if his strong suits. As a toddler, he had 3 episodes of night terrors. It took him a bit to snap out of them and return to reality—an image that still haunts me today. We keep him from most “scary” shows that his friends watch and yet his imagination creates these horrible images and fear. I feel like there must be some way to help build his courage so that he can have a nourishing sleep without squishing into our bed or impacting his younger brother’s sleep. Any advice?

A. Interesting that you mentioned your son’s imagination and creativity. These wonderful traits often lead to disrupted and scary dreams and nightmares. Vivid imagination can take a young child into realms we have forgotten. And I believe vivid imagination is a sign of high intelligence (I do not have research on this). This is genuine fear and should be treated as such. Never minimize his fears but also support him with your confidence and assurance that he will get through it and eventually be over them. He of course worries he will always be like this. Your confidence is key because the more you worry about his fears, the more he gets the message that there really is something to be upset about.

Keep giving him “weapons” he might use, i.e. a nerf bat, a superhero quilt for protection, a night check with you of his closet and beneath his bed, etc. Instead of asking him to think of happy things, try rehearsing with him all the angry, horrible things he would like to say to whatever or whoever appears to him in the night—let him go all out. When he can do this with you, even if he can’t at the moment of fear, he knows he has it inside him. The role play can be quite empowering. And all the while, maintain your confidence that he will be fine.

If he is creative, get him drawing his fears. Putting shapes and names to what he is afraid of can soften the fear. It’s mindfulness for children. Name what you are afraid of and the fear becomes more manageable and greatly diminishes over time.

I too tried everything I could think of with my daughter to no avail. Fears will not be assuaged. We did quite a bit of role-playing with her fears. Take turns playing what or who your son is afraid of and allow him to personify and talk to those fears. Eventually my daughter wanted to talk to someone else about her fears, so I set up a few appointments with a therapist who did some play therapy with her. It seemed to help. If your son would like that, I highly recommend a therapist who specializes in children’s fears and phobias. As hard as it is to live through, it is perfectly natural and will diminish with time. Actually, both of my children were very afraid at night until they were nine.

Fears change as cognition develops—from monsters and gremlins to a more realistic fear of someone entering the house. You of course want desperately to take them away, but that is impossible. It is important for them to go through their fears to learn to cope. Coping and living through it with your support and understanding will build his courage. It is not likely there will be any lasting negative effects. It’s just getting through it that is tough.

You might try working with him onTaming his Gremlin


Religious Doubt in a Teen

Q. What do you say to a son who says he doesn’t believe in God? We are a family who goes to church often, talks about doing good to and for others, and tries to instill proper values and ethics in the lives of our children. At dinner the other night, while conversing, our 14-year-old son dropped this bombshell that he was going to choose to be an atheist. It upset both my husband and me to the point where we sent him to his room to reflect on all he has to be thankful for. He is of a pretty calm and kind nature, so this really disappointed us and upset us. Is there something we could say and/or do to make him understand that God is important!?

A. Your son is demonstrating his growing independence. It is important that you honor that while at the same time maintain a relationship with him that he will always want to gain love, support, and influence from. It is his attachment to you and your family that will keep him safe, self-assured, and strong in the face of growing peer dominance. If you punish him for what he believes or what he thinks he believes, you are putting that relationship at great risk.

At 14, you can no longer convince him to believe as you do or make him understand that what you believe is right or important. He has his own mind. He sees that others believing differently than his family and now knows that he can too. It’s especially hard for parents whose faith is very important to them to see their child drop it. But I’m sure you don’t want to raise a son who just spits back what he learned from his parents. Ideally you want him to discover his own belief for himself—whether that is a belief in God, in nature, in a greater power, or simply in himself.

It is the territory of teendom to question all you were brought up with, to try on different “costumes” of different types of people, to feel embarrassed that you still have parents who are telling you what to do. These are the years of trial and error, of taking on and letting go. This is an essential process to go through in order to land where you truly belong.

Ask yourself why it is so important that he believe what you do. Will you not love him or approve of him if he decides as many do that there is no God? Will that make him an ungrateful, disrespectful person?

My suggestions is to let him know that you admire his independent thinking and probing, even though you believe differently. I would acknowledge that not everyone believes in God and many believe in different gods than yours. You can tell him all you want about how important your belief has been to you. But you cannot force him into those beliefs.

When we put others down for believing differently than we do, we foster bigotry. Your son could find that as further reason to not believe especially if he is punished (being sent to his room) for his doubting. In other words, you could be sending him further down the path you least want him to take. One does not have to believe in God to be humble, grateful, kind, helpful and respectful of others. He will take his values and ethics from you regardless of what he believes. It is important that you uphold those values by honoring his right to think differently. If you let him know that you understand he is struggling with important philosophical thinking, and you are open to discussing his quandaries with him, he will listen. When you let him know that you do not and will not approve of his decision to believe differently, he will no longer seek your advice. This is an important milestone for all of you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

~ Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet


To submit a question, email me at bh@bonnieharris.com with your short question and I will answer you within a few days. It may appear in the newsletter at a later date.


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