I just screamed at my child. And it all started with a bell pepper.
Mealtimes have been challenging lately. My toddler either takes forever to start eating his meal, or throws a giant tantrum over not eating. Sometimes, I do fine with it. I calmly give him options (Do you want to try the carrot or corned beef first?), I tell him what’s happening (We’re going to eat, then play toys, then have a little quiet time), I hold his favorite food hostage (as soon as you eat the peas, you get to have some of Grandma’s homemade wheat bread), I give him reasons for eating the food (Broccoli will make you strong like Daddy). Sometimes just asking him if I can give his leftovers to the dog spurs him to eat (it also backfires as well, much to the Doug’s delight). I try really hard to make mealtime issues more of a chess match than a battlefield, but sometimes I fail. And that is how we get to this morning…
I didn’t feel particularly stressed when I sat down to breakfast with my boy. I had my Havarti dill and veg scramble, he had his birds nest and sautéed bell pepper. He likes the birds nest (egg cooked in the middle of a piece of bread), but has never tried bell pepper sautéed in butter.
[Pro tip: pair a new food with a food that has previously been approved by the child. Mom tip: that doesn’t really apply to toddlers, as their likes/preferences change on a dime]
After some fussing, he started eating his birds nest (See, I told you that you liked it, I thought to myself). The sad little bell pepper rings sat ignored on the plate. I really wanted him to try it, so I started using the usual techniques to try to entice him (Yes, as soon as you try the pepper you can have chocolate milk/more milk; You’ve never tried the pepper so you don’t know if you don’t like it; We need to try new foods so we can find new things we like!; Do you want to try the red or yellow pepper?; It’s a treat to sit on the couch and watch cartoons while we eat, so continue to eat!; Please just take one bite). He was not having it and was getting fussier and fussier. This should have been my cue to stop pushing it; the chess match was turning ugly. Instead, I plowed on ahead, determined to be that “good mom” whose children try their veg and develop good eating habits.
The scene turned volatile in an instant. He kept trying to grab toys that were nearby (I know better than to have potential distractions in arm’s reach), I dramatically swept them off the table. Huge warning bells should have been going off at that point…nope, didn’t need them. He reached for his plate to flip over, grabbed at his food and threw it on the floor and I lost it. I screamed, what’s wrong with you, and set him on the couch while going on about how we don’t waste food like that. I stormed into the kitchen and grabbed some paper towels, intending to make him help clean the mess I was convinced that HE’D made. Instead, I stopped at the sink, hung my head and listened to him cry. I realized I’D made the mess, and it was a whole lot bigger than just a little bit of spilled coffee and egg.
I joined him on the couch and opened my arms. He crawled in, big tears in his eyes and put his head on my shoulder. I said over and over, Mommy is sorry, Mommy shouldn’t have yelled, Mommy is so sorry, while rocking him back and forth. He calmed down when I started apologizing, but stayed in my arms. I asked him if Mommy was scary, and he said yes. I apologized for being scary. I asked him if he was mad at Mommy, he said yes. I said that was ok. I told him that Mommy was mad at Mommy, not him, and that Mommy shouldn’t have yelled. I didn’t qualify any of my statements; I didn’t say “Mommy is sorry she yelled but you shouldn’t have thrown your food.” I did that on purpose because the focus was on how inappropriate my behavior was, not his. Yes, he shouldn’t throw food, but more importantly, I shouldn’t explode on him for that. My reaction was over the top and was a reflection of my inability to cope with frustration. I shouldn’t have taken it out on him.
Thankfully, he returned to his usual, smiling self shortly after that. He even asked to try the bell pepper, which I’m not sure I’m happy about. I hope he tried it because his toddler mind decided it was the right time and not because he was scared of Erupting Volcano Mommy. If a particular food becomes a battlefield, he often tries it after I reach the end of my rope. The cheesy couscous is legend in our family now: after 2 hours of trying to get him to try it, I broke down and started sobbing, feeling like a terrible mom for pushing it so much. He stopped his own crying, looked at me, took a bite from Dad and declared that he liked it; he went on to eat 2 bowls. Who knows what changes in his head when he sees Mommy so upset. He’s a very sensitive boy, so maybe he thinks my reactions mean something is very important and he should try it. Just wish it didn’t happen with food so much!
My takeaway from this situation is:
- Stop freaking out over mealtimes. All I can do is offer the food – it’s his decision whether to eat or not. And I’m not a bad mom if he doesn’t try his veg. [Note: I’ve been telling myself this since he started solids; I need constant reminders but I wish they wouldn’t come in the form of freak-outs!]
- Be mindful of warning signs, both his and mine. If his fussiness is accelerating, I need to slow down. If I feel my frustration rising, I need to take a break. I’m the adult, so I need to regulate my behavior/emotional response as he is unable to do so.
What do you do when tensions start rising at mealtime? Or what do you do to prevent mealtime battles?