This is the second part of our series with Dr. Kathleen Cuneo (see Part 1 if you haven’t already). In this post she is answering more questions from readers. You can get her workbook, Empowered Parenting: A Workbook for Parents of Toddlers and Preschoolers, Helping You Become the Parent You Want to Be, for a discounted price through January. Got a question for Dr. Cuneo? Leave it in the comments.
1. How do you get an introverted child, who is afraid of new situations, to gain new skills?
I love this question because it reflects a parent’s understanding of their child’s nature. Some children are naturally more hesitant in new or unfamiliar situations. Acknowledging and respecting a child’s temperamental bias to being uncomfortable in new situations is the first step in helping the child. Specific recommendations beyond that would depend on the specific details of the child’s experience.
In general, I recommend that the parent provide a secure base for their child and gently nudge them towards greater involvement in the new situation. For example, if the child has a history of becoming anxious and overwhelmed at birthday parties, I would suggest that the parent accompany the child to the party, stay near them on the outskirts of the action in an observant fashion, and after a period of adjustment, make suggestions about how the child can join in with others. It may be easier for the child to join in an activity with just one other child at first rather than joining with the whole group. The child may also need the parent to continue to stay near. This can be frustrating and draining for many parents. Further, it can be tricky to find the balance of knowing when to be present, accepting, and supportive, and when to give a little push. For most kids a gradual series of gentle pushes is better than one big, abrupt push.
For some children some advance preparation before new situations can be helpful. Helping the child visualize and perhaps role play what is likely to happen can be helpful for some, but for others it may increase their anxiety. You have to know your child and/or go through some trial and error to know what will work. The other significant ways that parents can help their children gain skills to master their anxiety involve helping the child learn relaxation techniques (for example, deep breathing exercises), helping the child talk about their fears and brainstorm strategies for coping, and arranging the environment for success (for example, setting up a playdate in the child’s home with a small number of friends).
2. How do you get a toddler/preschooler to sit for dinner without making it a negative experience?
Having your children join you at the dinner table from an early age is such an important practice and I’m happy to hear that you want to make it a positive experience. My first suggestion is to manage your expectations. Toddlers will most likely not sit still for much more than 15 minutes. So if you can get a pleasant 15 minute experience with your toddler at the table, I’d say you’re doing great. Also, check your expectations about cleanliness and neatness. There will be imperfect use of utensils as they learn, and there will be mess. It’s all part of the learning process.
My second suggestion is to follow Ellyn Satter’s division of responsibility in feeding. That is to say, parents are responsible for the what, when, and where of feeding while children are responsible for whether or not they eat and how much they eat. I know Maryann writes about this often so I won’t go into too much detail here, but the bottom line is if you are nagging, coercing, bribing, withholding, or fighting with your kids about how much they’re eating, you are interfering with their ability to learn to grow to be healthy eaters in the long run.
And my third suggestion would be to put effort into making mealtimes pleasant. Don’t use dinnertime to talk repeatedly about your kids’ eating habits and your feelings of disappointment or frustration with them. Instead, try to engage your kids in conversations about their day, what you’re all grateful for, or upcoming family events. The dinner table is also a great place to share family stories about relatives and about your childhood. If you are stuck in getting a good conversation going, check out my review of some dinner games for some ideas.
If you start doing these things now, your children will experience the family table as a positive place to be, and getting them there to experience an enjoyable meal together will get progressively easier as they get older.
3. How can I tell if my child is wanting to eat out of boredom or because she is really hungry?
This question makes me wonder about the history behind the question. I would want to know if there is a history of some conflict between the child and her parents over the child’s eating. Is the child allowed to eat as much as she wants at mealtimes so that she feels full? Or is she restricted in some way? If so, she may be preoccupied with food. Is there a regular routine and structure to when meals and snacks are offered? If not, the child may have some food insecurity. And is there a history of using food as a way to soothe or distract this child? If so, the child may have learned some associations with food that are unrelated to hunger. Most young children will want to eat when they’re hungry and not necessarily seek out food at other times unless there has been some history of violating the division of responsibility in some way.
Regarding children and boredom, I would suggest incorporating some regular downtime into kids’ routines and providing support for creative play so that they can learn skills to occupy and entertain themselves. For more on creative play, refer to this recent blog post.