Did you know you may inadvertently be dealing “drugs” to your children?
Dopamine has been called the brain’s “pleasure chemical.” It is released when pleasure is experienced. It creates healthy motivation to pursue various life-giving pleasures such as accomplishing a goal, taking on a new challenge, or connecting with others in meaningful ways.
According to Amy Banks MD, in an ideal world dopamine bursts would happen primarily through pursuit of healthy, life-giving activities – particularly through nurturing human connection. Unfortunately, we live in a world that has many of us seeking dopamine in all the wrong places, like overeating and obesity, drug and alcohol abuse, and consumerism.
Related to dynamics with our kids, it starts out innocently enough. When you smile and give your child that thing they are SO excited about and you get a big hug – Shazam! a dopamine feast for both of you! It felt so good. Let’s do it again. And you do it again. And they do it again.
And pretty soon contentment becomes dependent on dopamine bursts.
Eat your broccoli, or there’s no dessert! Nooooooo! It’s yucky!! Then no dessert for you! But I want ice creeeeeeeeam!
You’ve heard dozens of times that an important key to family connection is enjoying meals together. But what happens when those mealtimes turn stressful, anxious and anything but connective because parents and kids disagree about what kids should be eating? The power struggles that ensue can ruin everyone’s appetite and decrease the likelihood your child will grow up to be a healthy eater. We appreciate what Ellyn Satter said in her classic book How to Get Your Kids to Eat, but Not Too Much:
Parents are responsible for what is presented and the way it is presented. Children are responsible for how much and even whether they eat!
We share three important principles with a variety of practical ideas in this article to help bring peace to your family mealtimes. These come out of my professional training with children’s eating difficulties and coaching dozens of families through these struggles. Try one or two this week and let us know how it goes!
1) Create an ENJOYABLE MEALTIME environment
Ditch the label “picky eater” if that’s what is in your mind and comes out of your mouth. (It’s in our title because it’s a frequently searched phrase.) A shift in perspective will help you all relax. No labels, just think – my child is anxious about food, my good intentions may have made that worse, but we can all learn and grow together.
Have regular sit-down family meals, with positive conversation and atmosphere, and no screens or distractions. We encourage everyone (including parents!) to surrender phones during meal times.
Refuse to engage in power struggles related to what or how much your child chooses to eat. The dinner table is not the time to “win” the battle. In some families, kids do well with a “Let’s all try a bite of everything” approach, but if this becomes a power struggle it is counter-productive.
Pass food.When capable, children should be encouraged to pass food and place servings on their own plates. Resist the urge to comment on how much or how little they take when the serving bowl or plate passes by them.
Allow messiness and play. For younger children allow some messiness and playful exploration of food, especially at snacks. Exploring and playing with food is an important part of development in which children learn about food and also learn to enjoy it. How high can they stack their crackers?
Talk about the characteristics of the food. Describe the food’s size, color, shape, texture, smell, and taste. In a relaxed way, talk about why you enjoy it, and how it is similar to a food which your child accepts.
Include children in food preparation when developmentally appropriate. When kids have a chance to help plan, shop for, and make a meal they are more excited to eat it!
Parents sometimes feel like hostages to the intense demands of their children, intimidated into submission with the threat of “the big gun” – a deafening meltdown. One of our online course participants asked for help:
Our 3 1/2 year old son often wants a specific plate or cup. So if we set him up with one that he doesn’t like, he can be very vocal about it. Sometimes our initial reaction is something like “It doesn’t matter if you have the blue cup or the orange cup. Why can’t you be flexible & move on?!?! Get over it!” But perhaps he wants to exercise his choice & preference.
How do I get my 7-year-old son to stop talking back to everything we say? He is always right and we are always wrong! … We try discipline, taking away some of his toys, etc. but nothing seems to work. Any suggestions would be GREATLY appreciated!
Parents get justifiably exasperated with incessant backtalk, but the typical reflexive response — punishing backtalk — is like putting fertilizer on it.
I see the difference you’re talking about between typical parenting and parenting with the four messages in mind… and I like the difference I see… here comes the BUT… what about when you are pressed for time and have to get out the door and your kiddo won’t comply in a timely manner?
Julia was fed up. Her kids fought daily about their responsibilities, and Julia was at the end of her patience. Daily power struggles were beginning to define their relationships as the kids grew more discouraged and Julia more determined to stop the “misbehavior.” So Julia came to us for help.
As we sat and talked, it was clear from Julia’s description of her children’s behavior that there was more going on than mere misbehavior. We discussed how kids’ “misbehavior” is often just the tip of the iceberg of hunger, discouragement, anxiety, or tiredness. Julia went away from her session with a resolve to better understand both her challenging son Josh and her daughter Ashley, and help them better understand themselves. She wrote this report in preparation for our next session:
When we get into those familiar power-struggle patterns with our kids, it can seem like every mess, every chore, every bedtime is a battleground. And we can feel like oft-ignored commanders — trying in vain to “remind” our children back to the straight-and-narrow.
But these transitions and tasks don’t have to be battlefields.
Instead, turn your conflict into collaboration with one simple but powerful tool: questions.
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Brian and Jana were very concerned about how much work it was to get their 8-year-old son, Brady, to do much of anything – look up from his book when they talked, get ready for school in the morning, get dressed for baseball, take a shower… Just to get the kid to tie his shoes was an aggravating power struggle.
Brian observed, “I need to out-think him to get him to do something. And it has to be creative, or it doesn’t work.”
To help Brian understand and feel the impact of the “outfoxing game” on his son, I asked Brian how it would feel if his boss needed to outmaneuver him or threaten to dock his pay to “get him to perform” at work. Brian answered, “Pretty unmotivating.”
When kids say “No!” parents tend to react rather than respond. Reacting tends to lead to unconstructive power struggles that follow this basic pattern:
Parent: “Yes or else!”
Child: “I don’t care!”
Parent: “Well I’ll show you who’s boss!”
Now parent and child are in a power struggle, and when this happens no one really wins in the long run. Even if kids eventually give in to their parents’ “yes,” they feel defeated. They will likely seek power in unhealthy ways later, because they have a God-given need to have a sense of power over their lives. A lack of healthy power can lead to depression, passivity, resentment, or even rage.
Asking sincere questions, even with small kids, is a great way to build wisdom. Here’s a story a mom emailed to us that shows the difference between making demands and asking questions.
We were getting ready to leave the house, and I told Matthew it was time to go potty before we head out the door. He began to protest, whine big-time, and even throw himself on the floor. I told him again that it was time to go potty, and the same thing happened. Clearly this wasn’t going anywhere, so I stepped back to assess what was happening. I knew there must be a better way to handle this. I remembered the Connected Families principle about how important it is to teach wisdom rather than just give commands. So I tried again. Our conversation went something like this: