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Stefanie Tsabar

The Consequences of Controlling Our Kids’ Eating

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We all want the same thing for our kids, right?

We want them to be happy, healthy, kind…and…thin.

Plus, the last thing we want is to be considered bad parents.

Certainly in our society, if our child’s body – or appetite – is the least bit bigger than other kids’, then we feel like we are failing as a mother or father and that everyone is judging us, from our child’s doctor to family members to other moms.

So, while we absolutely want our kids to be healthy, we often misuse and abuse that word to mean thin.

To handle these fears, we were taught to focus on portion control.

A mom asked me whether it’s okay to feed her kids differently, since one is so skinny and the other one is getting “chubby”.

Specifically, she wanted to give her “skinny” child more treats (e.g., fun visits to the ice cream shop) than her other son, clearly demonstrating that health was not the focus, but rather size.

I have also coached parents who only keep “clean” ingredients in their pantries, and they also worry about their kids’ weight.

To be clear, none of this is shameful.

Quite the opposite: the reasons we want our kids to be thin is to protect them from ridicule, self-consciousness, shame and a lifetime of diets.

We believe that if they are thin, then they will be popular, accepted, confident, successful. And, of course, happy and healthy.

Many of us can point to a particular moment or situation that ignited our anxiety. It could have started when our child was just a toddler, when at a routine doctor’s visit, the pediatrician raised her eyebrows at us because she was concerned that our wee-one would become obese.

Yes, the fear of obesity often starts before our children are out of diapers!

It could be that our child’s appetite has always been “too big,” even when he was a baby on formula. Our reasoning is that he has always eaten more than other children.

The truth is that every child eats differently, and their appetites, palates and weights shift as they grow up.

But, we still panic.

One mom told me in utter disgust, “my 3-year-old ate more pancakes than her dad this morning”.  Another confided that her daughter is a bottomless pit, and that if given the chance, she would never stop eating.

Other moms tell me that they dread play dates, birthday parties and even going to restaurants because their child will always eat more than other kids.

So, the question is, does our controlling help our kids in the long run?

Studies show that our kids will very likely grow up with weight problems, confidence issues and aversions to the foods they were forced to eat if we CONTINUE to control their eating.

The most heavily researched and proven way to avoid this trajectory is to teach them how to self-regulate their eating.

To be clear, we are not teaching them to eat less or lose weight. Instead, we are simply teaching them how to trust themselves with and around food so that they can ultimately reach their own natural, healthy weight.

Like many of you, I have struggled with the idea (and the implementation) of relinquishing control of my son’s eating.

I tried to control it for so many years that it was virtually impossible to stop on a dime.

But I have also seen first hand the profound results of learning to trust my son to listen to his own internal cues of hunger and fullness. And, the parents I coach have seen these results with their own kids as well.

Whenever I see my son trying a new vegetable on his own accord, or leaving potato chips on his plate because he is full, I know he’s on the right track.

Plus, the research is clear: when we control our kids’ eating with pressure or restriction, it will more often than not lead to all the consequences that we fear. From weight issues to extreme picky eating to a lifetime of diets, shame and self-consciousness.

I know it’s hard. I know that it can feel excruciating. 

But, the next time your instinct is to hover over your children at meals or take food out of their hands, I invite you to consider a new way.

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