Feeding Kids: How Trust Can Help Your Child Feel Confident With Food
Do you trust your child to eat, mama?
That might seem like an odd question.
What does it mean to trust your child with food and eating, and why does this matter?
Before I answer these questions, I want to tell you a story:
I remember the first time I broke my parents’ trust.
I must have been seven or eight years old at the time when I stole a pack of mechanical pencils from Wal-Mart.
Yep - you read that right.
Not a candy bar. Not a toy. Mechanical pencils.
Don’t ask me why. I honestly don’t remember why. I thought they looked cool. I thought I would be awesome for having a clickable writing tool rather than the plain, drab pencils we’ve always had at school. It definitely wasn’t my finest moment.
Whatever the reason that motivated me, I snuck a 2-pack in my pocket. I’ll never forget how my parents reacted when they discovered them later.
I was more upset by their disappointment in me than any punishment that I was given. Their faces that simultaneously portrayed shock and horror made me feel like an outcast for my actions.
While I learned my lesson from that experience (especially after the walk of shame back to Walmart to return said pencils), I saw how it changed the way my parents related to me.
They always kept a watchful eye on me anytime we went to the store. My mom even made me hold on to the cart for some time.
As a parent now, I know that my actions led them to second-guess my decisions, and that wasn’t a good feeling. Breaking their trust created feelings of fear and worry in the way they related to me.
Maybe you can understand in one way or another.
Maybe not from stealing mechanical pencils, but perhaps you understand on a deeper level that when trust is broken, it shifts the way we interact and engage with one another and ourselves.
Whether you’ve been the one to break trust or have been on the receiving end of someone who has broken your trust, it feels a lot like trying to glue a piece of pottery that has been shattered into a bunch of tiny pieces.
No matter how you piece it back together, it won’t be the same.
Living life from a place of distrust and fear can cause you to second-guess many things, and that is not a good place to be in.
So what does this all have to do with trusting your child to eat?
What Influences Feelings of Fear With Feeding Kids?
Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that we’re all born with an innate ability to self-regulate what we need to feed ourselves what is appropriate for OUR own individual BODIES.
Eating is instinctual and the drive to keep our bodies nourished is hard-wired into our DNA. Eating is as natural for our biology as is breathing.
Yet somewhere along our life journey, we might encounter situations or circumstances that cause us to feel like our bodies or our children’s bodies cannot be trusted.
As a result, we might try to take control, and this may change the way we relate to our kids when we feed them. We may feel like we need to manipulate our food intake or body size (or our children’s food and body size) as we look to external regulators to eat rather than trust our own innate cues and eating abilities.
These deep-seated fears, especially if left unresolved or unaddressed, can absolutely influence how we approach food with our own children.
If you take a step back to look at how you feed your kids, take an honest look at the feelings this might bring up for you.
Do you enjoy mealtimes with your kids and feel joy around feeding them?
Does feeding your kids bring up feelings of fear, anxiety, stress, confusion, and/or overwhelm?
It’s normal to experience elements of concern for your child’s well-being. But it’s important to distinguish between concern and fear/anxiety.
First, what are some of the factors that might trigger fear in how you feel about feeding your child?
While this list is not exclusive by any means, there are some things to be aware of that may cause feelings of fear or anxiety in the way you care for and feed your kiddos.
Here are some factors that may influence you to feed your child from a place of fear:
Having a personal history of chronic dieting, disordered eating, or an eating disorder
Having past experiences of being bullied or shamed for your body size or how you ate
Your child has experienced bullying or shaming for his or her body size or food choices
Comments from friends and family about your body or your child’s body
You’ve received advice, comments or recommendations about your child’s health or body from professionals or adults your child interacts with, including health care professionals, teachers, coaches, etc.
Having a preterm baby, early medical interventions, or any issues that made it hard to feed your baby from the start or difficulty breastfeeding (such as a prolonged NICU stay, infant surgeries, etc)
Your children have an underlying medical or mental health condition that causes you to worry about their food intake
Your child may not live with you full time
If a child experiences problems with feeding or growth, such as recovery feeding after an illness
Societal pressure about what your child should look like or be eating
Fear of child being at risk for overweight
Mealtime conflicts and other stressors that make feeding difficult
Misinterpretation of a child’s normal high or low weight as overweight/underweight
Living in a primarily fat phobic culture that perpetuates fears about kids in larger bodies
Whatever your experience may have been with yourself or your child, the presence of fear in feeding and raising kids can be a powerful force that may reap unwanted consequences.
What Might Fear-Based Feeding Tactics Look Like?
Feeding kids from a place of fear or distrust may look a lot like how my parents responded after my pencil-stealing episode: second-guessing, questioning, fearful, stress around certain situations and circumstances, etc.
So with kids and food, this might look like:
Questioning what your child is eating, including types of foods and quantities
Not allowing your child to have access to or eat certain foods for fear they might be “out-of-control”
Using polarizing language to persuade them to eat in a certain way (i.e. “That is bad for you, you shouldn’t be eating that”, or, “This is so much healthier for you, eat this instead.”
Not allowing your child to self-regulate
Controlling what and how much your child is able to eat
Enforcing strict food or exercise rules
Pushing a hidden agenda on your children that causes them to second-guess their eating skills
Monitoring/regulating what your child eats and has access to outside your home (family functions, parties, etc)
Watching/monitoring your child’s weight
Making your child feel guilty for eating (or not eating) certain foods you think may be healthier for them.
Pressuring your child to eat a certain amount of food (either more than you think they need or less)
Giving your child “the look” when they reach for more food or eat a food you may not approve
Avoid offering or having certain foods, including desserts and snacks
Imposing arbitrary limits on what your child can eat
Under or overfeeding through restriction or pressure to eat tactics
These things are common occurrences, and if you have done this with your child, please hear me out - you are NOT a bad mama. You are not failing as a parent. We’re all doing the best we can with the information and resources we have.
But consider this: what has your child done to make you feel as though you can’t trust them around food and eating?
What might happen when you feed your kids from a place of fear?
What are the Risks of Fear-Based Feeding Tactics?
When feeding kids is approached from a place of fear, this can inadvertently teach children that their bodies can’t be trusted.
When a child begins to feel that her body can’t be trusted, this will begin to create feelings of distrust in herself; not just with food and her body, but this can permeate all other aspects of her life as well.
Fear-based feeding tactics versus Trusting Feeding Strategies
Specifically when it comes to food, kids who experience fear-based feeding tactics will be more likely to:
Have lower self-esteem
May be less likely to be interested in food/family meals
Unable to rely on internal cues of hunger and fullness to know how much to eat
May dislike trying new foods
Be less attuned to their own physical, emotional, and mental needs
May have an increased risk for disordered eating, chronic dieting, or an eating disorder
May struggled with negative body image
Decreased confidence in themselves
Be more likely to binge eat or become food obsessed
May have disruptions in their normal growth patterns
Increased stress, resistance, and miscommunication over food with caregivers
Higher frequency of battles at mealtimes
On the contrary, kids who have a trusting feeding relationship with their primary caregivers and develop eating competence are more likely to:
Feel more confident in their bodies and eating abilities
Be more open and willing to learn how to try and eat new foods
Be more socially and emotionally competent
Be better able to grow at a rate that is appropriate for his/her body
Have less of a risk for maladaptive eating patterns
Have positive attitudes about eating
Have good food acceptance skills
Have greater body weight satisfaction and higher quality diet, including increased intake of healthy foods like fruits and vegetables
Preserved intuitive eating skills that allow him/her to regulate food based on sensations of hunger, appetite, and satisfaction
Disruptions Are Created When Feeding Kids From a Place of Fear
Fear-based feeding is often triggered by a stressor and then perpetuated and reinforced by certain actions and behaviors. This can create a vicious cycle of conflict between a parent and a child when it comes to food and ultimately lead to an unhealthy relationship with food and body.
For example, here is a way fear-based feeding might cycle:
Stressor/Trigger: Parent might experience a stressor or trigger, such as a health professional recommending weight loss for a child or commenting that child’s body is too large for her size.
Emotion: This experience or stressor can trigger an array of emotions for a parent, including fear and anxiety, especially in regards to food and child’s body size.
Controlling Feeding Strategy: The experience of these emotions may influence a parent to engage in a controlling feeding tactic to manage these fears. In this example, a parent may begin controlling a child’s portions at meal times or restrict access to certain foods like desserts, snacks, etc.
Conflict: Because fear-based feeding tactics (like described above) enforce the idea that a child can’t be trusted, this can backfire and create conflict between a parent and a child. This may trigger a child obsessed with food, a child hoarding food or hiding food, or there may be resistance toward parents at mealtimes. Escalating conflict can bring up more stressors/triggers, which can reinforce this cycle and repeat the process.
So while fear-based feeding tactics are often a short-term solution to real emotional triggers around our kids and their bodies, they can result in long-term consequences that don’t support our kids’ overall well-being, as well as our relationship with our children.
Remember, kids are born with the programming to self-regulate what their bodies need to grow at a rate that is right for them. IF we do our part with feeding and TRUST them to do their part with eating, this innate ability to eat intuitively will be preserved throughout their lifetimes.
But even so - even though kids are naturally born with the ability to eat, we can second-guess them. We can unknowingly feed them from a place of FEAR rather than trust, and this element is what can slowly damage our relationship with our kids over time.
Why Kids Need to Be Trusted to Eat
This element of trusting our kids is crucial to creating positive eating experiences that will help them confidently build a healthy relationship with food and their bodies.
The feeding relationship between a parent and a child is one of the earliest ways kids learn to build trust in others and themselves. This is a critical foundation for kids that goes beyond the food itself and helps them build a foundation from which they will relate to all other aspects of their lives.
This process forms a basis for attachment between children and caregivers that is essential for healthy social-emotional function. A disruption in this process can in turn hinder a child’s social and emotional development.
The development of healthy eating behaviors depends primarily on responsive parenting behaviors - meaning, caregivers who are attuned to a child’s signals (such as showing a parent when they’ve had enough to eat or if they might need more food) and who are able to respond in a way that is emotionally supportive and developmentally appropriate.
If parents are controlling feeding situations (through examples described earlier), this can not only potentially override a child’s internal hunger and fullness cues, but it may also interfere with a child’s emerging autonomy and competence.
Children who are fed from a place of trust and responsiveness may be more likely to experience:
Eating in a competent and responsible manner
Increased attention to hunger and fullness signals
Healthy nutrition and growth
Enhanced cognitive, psychosocial, and language competence
As you can see, building a trusting feeding relationship with our kids goes far beyond the food itself; it teaches our kids to trust their bodies with eating, while also empowering them to trust themselves and their instincts, which is important for all other aspects of their lives and well-being
How to Confidently Feed Your Kids With Trust to Support Their Healthy Relationship With Food
Let go of what you can’t control, including appetite and body size:
Thinking we can somehow control our child’s appetite and body size is just an illusion. There are so many factors that our out of our control that have already predetermined what your child’s body size will be, such as their genetics.
When we try to control it (from a place of fear), this will always backfire. Letting go of your idea of what you think your child’s body should look like or how much she should/shouldn’t eat can give your kids the space they need to be who they are.
When you let go of trying to control what was never yours to control in the first place, it will free up so much mental space to focus on nurturing a positive feeding relationship with your child.
The bottom line is that we can’t manipulate the outcome of our child’s body size/shape by controlling food. If we approach our kids’ health and how we feed them from a place of fear and control or manipulation, our efforts are more likely to be detrimental, NOT helpful. The antidote to this will always be trust.
2. Identify and discontinue restraint/control feeding tactics:
Can you identify with any of the fear-based feeding tactics that I’ve described so far? Remember, these are any ways that you might be trying to control what your child eats or the outcome of his/her body size.
Once you’re able to pinpoint what some of these things are, you can figure out which approaches to feeding your kids might need to be discontinued.
It may feel scary to let go of something that you’ve been doing, but ultimately, it will create freedom for you and your child to enjoy a better relationship with food.
3. Provide stability by focusing on your jobs with feeding:
Your behaviors around food and a positive feeding relationship with your kids are more telling of positive health outcomes for your kids than ANY food they could eat.
Rather than hyperfocusing on the minutiae of food and nutrition, try spending more energy on prioritizing your jobs that help feed your child from a place of trust and confidence.
This includes managing the what, when, and where of feeding and providing regular and reliable family meals and snacks. Offer a variety of foods when possible to help them build a neutral relationship with all food.
4. Support your child’s natural food regulation skills:
Remember that your child is already born with intuitive eating capabilities. Your job as a parent is to preserve them by focusing on your feeding responsibilities and honoring their ability to self-regulate.
This is where I like to tell parents to “set it and forget it”; meaning, you focus on providing food for your children and let them do their job with eating.
Once you’ve given them their food, it is now their job to decide if they want to eat and how much they want to eat from what you’ve provided.
One of the best predictors for healthy kids and adolescents is encouraging frequent family meals and supporting autonomy in children’s own control over eating.
5. Offer unconditional acceptance and love:
In a culture that is hyperfocused on weight and achieving an unrealistic body size, kids need to feel security and safety within themselves.
This can happen much easier if they have a nurturing place and space to be loved for who they are and in the body they have currently.
If your kids have been experiencing pressure to lose weight, even more so, they will need your guidance and nurturing to learn to love and make the most of the body size they have, not the one they wish (or anyone else wishes) they had.
If your child has been experiencing pressure to lose weight, please check out this post on why diets don’t work for kids and more effective ways you can help support them.
6. Healing any past issues related to food or your body that influence fear in feeding your children:
Looking within to heal from fear or distrust around food and your body. If you distrust your child to eat or feed from a place from fear, it’s important to look within.
Do you also distrust yourself around certain foods or fear what food might do to your body? Taking an honest look at this can help give you build more confidence in feeding your own kids.
This is where it’s important to take an honest look and assessment at where these feelings of mistrust might be coming from.
Are they coming from your own past, your history or relationship with food and your body, your childhood eating experiences? Are you projecting your own fears around food and eating on to your child unintentionally?
Remember that awareness is key to creating change. If you’re feeling stuck in any of these areas, please reach out to a feeding professional to help you navigate your healing journey and the feeding relationship with your children.
7. Keep the big picture in mind:
Healthy eating for kids goes beyond the food itself.
To support your kids in a way that is appropriate for their bodies and to help them build confidence with food and their body, how you feed is far more important that what you feed.
Focusing on the big picture allows us to raise our child in a meaningful way that promotes their health on multiple levels: physically, mentally, and emotionally.
In doing so, we will help create positive eating experiences for our children, which is far more impactful on their health than any specific foods they might eat.
When You Don’t Trust Yourself With Food
For me personally, I struggled with chronic dieting from a young age. This eventually morphed into a severe eating disorder that could’ve been potentially fatal.
While I understand that eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that are influenced by a variety of complex factors, I know that a trigger was outside messaging that made me feel like my body was the enemy and couldn’t be trusted.
One of my biggest motivating drives for my own recovery was to heal my relationship with food and my body so that I could confidently feed myself as a mother and raise children who also felt good around food and in their bodies.
I didn’t want my fears around food and my body to rob my children of their own joyful experiences with eating or to break the innate trust and confidence in their bodies’ abilities. I knew that having a complicated relationship with food and my body would make feeding my own children much more difficult and convoluted.
If you have or currently do struggle with food or body issues, much of this may come from a place of mistrust in yourself. You might not trust yourself around certain foods, or you may not trust yourself to eat outside of a diet or rules around food. Maybe you were put on a diet at a young age or experienced a situation that made you feel like your body was the enemy, something that had to be controlled and that couldn’t be trusted.
It’s easy for this fear cycle around food and eating to be passed through generations until someone makes the conscious decision to do something differently.
That person can be YOU, mama.
You can choose to rebuild trust in your own body in order to confidently feed your own children. This takes some inner work and healing, but the outcomes that you will create for yourself and your family will benefit you for a lifetime and generations after you.
Some other areas to be aware of as you navigate this process:
Leaning into feelings of discomfort to explore more about yourself
Looking beyond the food - what other areas of your life might you have a hard time with trust or trusting yourself? How you feel about food is often how you feel about other areas of your life.
Lack of trust in yourself may project on your kids, how you feed your kids and yourself - be aware of and identify these areas.
It can be harder to know how to trust your child to eat when you feel anxious or stressed by eating, food, or your body. However, healing is possible for you too, my friend. You can raise an intuitive eater, even while you’re learning to become one.
Healing your relationship with food will bring generational cycles of fearful feeding and eating behaviors to a STOP so that you AND your child can confidently enjoy food and your bodies. It all comes back to trust. Trust in yourself and in your child.
As a final note on this topic, it’s important to know when to reach out for outside help when you need it. If you have been struggling with an eating disorder, please consider working with a professional(s) to help guide your recovery journey.
As an eating disorder registered dietitian and family feeding specialist, I would love to hear your story and learn more about how I can help you. In addition, you can search for eating disorder treatment on the National Eating Disorder Association website and treatment finder.
Raising Healthy Kids and Competent Eaters
When it comes to raising and feeding healthy kids, trust may be the primary ingredient needed to support our children’s well-being on multiple levels: physically, mentally, emotionally, and psychologically.
If you are needing support in this area or in your own journey as you raise your children, please know that you are not alone. There is hope for all kids and families, no matter what your situation has been.