Is it wrong to force a child to eat?

Q: Does forcing a child’s food intake cause psychological damage? My mother made me eat everything on her dinner table every night when I was born, in 1952. If I didn’t eat what was on my plate, she would make me sit at the dinner table until I finished, even if it was for hours. Or she would set a little manual timer for 15 minutes, slam it down in front of me and yell at me, “If you’re not done eating everything on your plate by the time this timer goes off, then you will be spanked and sent to bed!” Come to find out I do have severe food allergies. This is something I remember to this day. It was terrible, and I hated everything about it. Is this psychologically harmful?

A: I believe your letter to me, in which you included many distressing details about your experiences of being forced food, is a clear indication that it was psychologically devastating. You still remember all the details. (That’s trauma.) But why? What is the point of making children eat such horrible food? And why does it leave such a lasting impression on their lives?

The only three things one can force another person to do are sleep, eat and the use of the toilet. These actions are driven by deep impulses and each person has their own internal clock. When parents take draconian measures to control their children’s eating, it is about more than just getting them to finish their chicken. The parent is saying or sending messages such as: “I don’t care about your feelings or impulses. I control them.” “You don’t get to say when you eat. I do.” “I will withhold love and affection until you eat.” “Not eating or not making me happy will make me hurt you, physically and emotionally.”

When you conflate hunger and mealtime with shame, fear, anger, aggression and threats, you end up with terrorized children, which can lead to serious psychological problems when they’re older.

Many parents reading this may feel relieved that they aren’t so harsh and unforgiving at mealtime with their children (slamming down timers, threatening spankings, sitting for hours), and although the coercion and abuse in this letter are obvious, it should be noted that bribing, counting bites, giving constant commentary and lectures, and withholding food (if they don’t eat what was served) can also create problems that persist for many years.

As a parent, I’ve watched in disbelief as my children ate their burgers, nuggets, and pasta. I created complex systems that I could neither remember nor maintain (a sticker chart/bites of certain foods), and I wasn’t above an Oreo bribe if they finished their broccoli. I knew that I was wrong as a parent coach. Although my letter did not contain as much abuse, my mealtimes remained exhausting, too long, and disrespectful of myself and my children.

It is vital to focus on connecting and belonging rather than food before this becomes an all-out battle over meals. Although we were designed to eat delicious food, our brains are wired for connection. Children will join in when their caregivers and parents smile, nod, and eat. If you move the meal along, don’t substitute foods to please your children, don’t chase them around too much and end the meal without tears, you will find that the children will eventually sit, eat and chat with you.

Raising healthy, happy children can be a difficult task. It can feel like a tedious game. It is easy to serve good food but no one seems to notice. Then, one day, it’s poof! Everyone eats. Good meals are the result of commitment and maturation.

We shouldn’t be in the business to produce people who obey their hunger cues but are not hungry. Children should learn to slow down and enjoy their food. It is one of life’s greatest pleasures.

Your mother was a terrible cook when it came down to food. You were trampled on your boundaries, threatened, and scared by your mother about eating. Your body knows what it needs and what it doesn’t. It isn’t too late to heal from those wounds, so please seek therapy if you feel it is needed; trauma doesn’t have an expiration date. Best of luck.

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