Some of the most frustrating stories parents share about their children involve eating. Parents force their children to eat for a variety of reasons, the most cited one being an attempt to keep their children alive and healthy. Parents talk about the importance of variety, healthy options and not being wasteful. So mealtimes become stressful for both parent and child with the parent forcing the child to eat when they refuse or are picky about the food on their plates. Here are some negative effects of forcing children to eat.
Children have little control
Parents decide when children eat, what, and how much. Children’s appeals about being satisfied or eating later are largely ignored. They are often coerced, blackmailed, or tricked into eating just one more spoon, etc. with rewards and punishments used to convince them. The child may even be compared to other children in an attempt to convince them to eat which instead can evoke shame.
Forcing your child to eat usually involves scolding, threats, bribes, actually forcing food into their mouth, feeding them even though they can feed themselves, and walking around with a plate of food following the child.
“Finish your plate… no wasting.”
“You have to finish your food or else… (threats)”
”If you eat just one more spoon I’ll… (rewards)”
”If you don’t finish you will not eat _____ (which other people will be having)(threat)”
“Look at _____ (another child who is eating their food without any issues)”
It comes in different forms depending on the parent and all it does is reinforce the power and control the parent has in the situation.
Negative effects of forcing your child to eat
They never develop good self-regulation skills
An internal sensor in your body sends a signal to your brain letting you know whether you are hungry, thirsty, or full. Forcing children to eat compromises their ability to listen to and act on this internal self-regulation. It changes the way their internal sensor works and encourages them to ignore this internal information. They don’t learn how to listen to their internal stop eating or keep eating sensor. Children develop no control over their food habits which may eventually result in overeating and undereating.
May lead to an aversion to the food they are forced to eat
For most parents forcing children to eat largely revolves around healthier options like vegetables. Parents want their children to eat healthy and imagine that making them eat it will somehow make them either eventually like it or continue eating healthy when they are older. Studies in fact show that they instead develop a lifelong aversion to that food group. Another study found that 72% of respondents would not now eat the food they were forced to eat. Children who are forced to eat tend to eat less which leads to getting even less nutrition.
There is a strong correlation between force-feeding during the toddler years and eating disorders like obesity, anorexia, and bulimia during childhood.
May ruin child’s appetite
Forcing children to eat can kill a child’s natural appetite. It may even lead them to develop a strong, if not stronger appetite for sweets and other unhealthy food items.
When parents forcefully feed children who can feed themselves, they risk the child vomiting, not chewing the food properly, and even having frequent bouts of nausea.
Children don’t enjoy meals
Forcing children to eat also has the negative effect of turning mealtimes into warzones which means they never truly enjoy meals and may even develop a strong dislike towards them.
Solutions and ways to avoid force feeding
- Keep your expectations on the child’s eating low. Respect their appetite or lack of one.
- Be patient when it comes to introducing new foods.
- Make meals that your child loves or you think they will love.
- Give them finger foods. Children show a marked preference for finger foods.
- Recruit your child’s help when shopping for food and even cooking it.
- Opt for small frequent meals. In this way the child still gets the nutrients they need and eats at their own pace, paying attention to their internal markers of satisfaction or hunger.
- Don’t be a short-order cook making different meals on demand for a picky child. This may encourage the behaviour. Just let them choose from the options available.
- Don’t attach any feelings of your success as a parent to how your child eats. Try and deal with any feelings of insecurity about how you’re performing as a parent.
- Set a good example by eating a wide variety of healthy food as well.
Forcing your children to eat reinforces to them that they have no bodily autonomy at all, not even a little control over the choice of what to eat or their eating habits in general. It may kill their appetite, make them dislike certain foods, or even have an aversion to mealtimes in general. Picky eating will likely pass and there’s no reason to feel like some kind of failure as a parent because your child doesn’t like something.
Using food as part of a punishment or reward system also leads to an unhealthy relationship with food. There’s no winning here, all force-feeding does is reinforce to the parent that they are in charge, in control at a cost that is far too high.