Toddlers– they’re just like us!
I had the pleasure of hosting a talk a couple weeks ago about Stress-free Toddler Feeding. About 10 moms (and a couple dads too) came to a local coffee shop to hear me talk about feeding their toddlers based on Ellyn Satter‘s Division of Responsibility (which I’ve written about before), with the hopes that they will become intuitive eaters as adults. I touched on how developmentally, toddlers are at a stage in which they are striving for autonomy, which is one of the reasons why feeding them can be so challenging. Children at this age are trying to show us that they are their own little people with their own opinions, so eating can become a power struggle as they try to prove this fact. When we try to control too much, either by restricting food because we’re afraid they’re eating too much, or pushing food (or certain foods) because we think they’re not getting enough, they fight back, and do the exact opposite– they become preoccupied by food if we restrict, or refuse to eat or become picky eaters if we try to force feed them. That’s why we, as parents, need to remember that our role is to provide the what, when, and where of feeding, and children are responsible for the how much if any of eating. When we try to interfere, their innate desire for autonomy will result in a power struggle.
It occurred to me recently that in a lot of ways, we as adults experience this same toddler-like struggle for autonomy when it comes to eating. As I’ve written about before, a so-called diet “failure” is really just a healthy response to the violation of our personal boundaries when it comes to eating. How could some other person or diet know what we want to eat, when we want to eat it, and how much we want to eat of it? Just like toddlers, we fight back against this violation. While toddlers may throw a fit, our kicking and screaming tantrums happen internally (hopefully!) when we sense that our autonomy has been challenged, and we rebel against the restrictions of a diet by eating more or by eating what is prohibited.
Even though we’re no longer children, we still need to have our own inner caring parent who makes sure that the what, when, and where of feeding is taken care of, so that we can trust that the how much of eating is based on internal cues. Just like we do with our children, this means making sure there are ample amounts of balanced food choices available, that you give yourself regular opportunities to eat and feel nourished, and that you eat in a pleasant, relaxed environment whenever possible. Once that structure is provided by your inner parent, the rest is up to the intuitive eater within to decide how much you want to eat. In other words, our inner parent takes care of the logistics of feeding ourselves, so that our inner toddler, who is a born intuitive eater not yet corrupted with rules of what she “should” or “shouldn’t” eat, can trust her gut to know how much to eat of what has been provided.
Whether you’re a parent or not, I’m hoping that this perspective can help you to better understand this natural reaction to a challenge of your autonomy, and know how to properly care for your inner tantruming toddler so that you won’t feel the need to rebel.