Picky Eaters Need Limits To Broaden Their Palette

Dear Patty,

I’m confused about how to set boundaries and limits with my 19 month old daughter. I feel like she’s too young to understand what I’m asking of her so how can I ask it of her. She’s not very verbal yet. I also do not want to use any rewards or punishments in my limit-setting, so I’m not sure what I should do.

One of the areas I’m having A LOT of trouble with is food and eating. When we sit down to eat she flings a lot of the food onto the floor and walls, throws it at me, throws dishes and cups and silverware, and pours her water all over the food. She seems like she’s playing when she does this, not angry.

Can I allow myself to want her to behave differently and ask that of her and set a limit around it?  Thanks.

Hi, good mother:

There are several issues your question raises, so I’ll try to touch on them all here.

What you need to know is that limits are vital to young children! Absolutely vital. And when you set a limit, you are using power, your power to stop your child from doing something that, in your judgment, doesn’t make sense. Using that power is OK. It’s part of your job. When a child can’t think well, her behavior goes off track, and she can’t get back on track without your help. So setting a limit with an off-track child is a form of love, of assistance, and insures the safety of all.

For example, if you manage to tolerate huge messes being made meal after meal, your own upsets are bound to accumulate until you reach a breaking point. Your upsets will then splash out onto your daughter in the form of some kind of sudden, active upset, aimed at her and her behavior. So even if she’s exploring how gravity pulls plates and bowls to the ground, and what foods stick best to the wall, a limit needs to be set. To rock your equilibrium by throwing food is not in your daughter’s best interests!

Your job is to notice when your child is not able to be relaxed, flexible, and in tune with you and others, and to simply stop the unworkable behavior, then to listen to the feelings she has about the changes you judge necessary. There is no age at which it’s too early to set limits. For instance, if an infant is crying passionately and in her upset, she’s scratching her own face and scalp, a loving parent would keep listening and trying to understand the child, but would keep a gentle hand over her fingers, so she could move as much as she wanted, but couldn’t harm herself in the midst of her upset.

When I worked in infant care, I often set limits with children who were 7 or 8 months old, and wanted only the toys that another infant was holding. I would gently hold the child around the belly as she made a grab for another child’s toy, and say, “No, Alice, there are other things you can play with.” Then, I’d make loving eye contact, and listen to the child cry until her mind cleared. At that point she felt better connected with me, had released the upset that had her locked on the thought, “Only one toy can make me happy,” and could be happy with unclaimed toys.

You’re right that your daughter might need some messy playtime to satisfy her instinct to play and learn with foods and textures. But this need doesn’t have to be filled at mealtime. You could provide a place and time for messes outside where you can hose things down afterward, or inside, with a plastic tablecloth placed under her high chair. Call it Special Time, and let her play with things that have texture and color—playdough, baking soda and water, soaked oatmeal. Let her play, throw, smear and have fun. Get in close, enjoy, and promote laughter if you can. It might be that 20 minutes of messing around every few days would begin to satisfy her desire to learn in this way.

However, when it’s mealtime and she begins to throw and to smear, set a limit. Don’t expect words to work. Words don’t work well in setting limits with children of any age! Move in close, offer a tone of generosity and warmth, and gently but firmly stop her. When she starts to pick up her bowl, hold the bowl to the tray so she can’t. Or when she raises her arm to throw, hold her arm gently. Don’t let her complete that motion. Then, you can use words. “No, sweetie. Not now. You can do that outside/this afternoon during Special Mess Time. Right now, it’s time to eat.”

That’s all. Don’t say much more. Provide just enough physical resistance so the limit is kept, and make eye contact. She will writhe, refuse to look at you, fight you, get hot and sweaty, and eventually, she’ll cry up a storm. You don’t need to hold her, but do put a hand supportively on her back or her leg, to communicate your caring. Let her rip.

This is the emotional release she needs to do in order to become more flexible, in order to be able to do something with food besides make messes. If the emotional issue hiding underneath this behavior is a big one, she may need to cry again and again for several weeks. Or she may need only a few cries like this before she can settle in and think about eating. You’ll just have to see how it unfolds. In any case, listening to her feelings is honoring her experience, while holding a safe and sane limit. You can read more suggestions in our Picky Eater or Getting Beyond The Yuck articles, or get a full description and application of how to apply the tools mentioned above in our Listening to Children set.

Patty Wipfler

Staying With A Daughter’s Fears Helps Her Overcome Them

Dear Patty,

Recently our three year old daughter has been having trouble going to the bathroom. She had a rash about a week ago, all healed now, and still has fears about going because it was so painful that one time. Any ideas on helping her work through this?

We usually have to sit and talk about it until she is so uncomfortable (because she has to go so bad) that I just hold her until she goes, while she is crying and screaming “no!” I feel awful, but she is always in good spirits after it’s all done. This has been going on for about 4 days now and it’s really been hard for all of us, especially her! Thanks for any help!

-Potty Petrified

Dear Potty Petrified,

Here’s what I think will help your daughter the most. She’s working on her fear of the pain she had, but there’s no pain any longer. She can’t tell, because the emotional memory is embedded in her mind, and will be there until she’s able to cry it all through. What will help is for you to be serene with her while she faces her feelings. And not to postpone facing them, not to try to avoid her crying. She needs to have those cries, is built to have those cries, and as long as you are close by and supportive, all the best things are happening. You’re there, there’s no pain, it’s only old fear that’s rolling off. You can read more about this in our Helping Children Conquer Their Fears article.

So when you see that she needs to go, just get close, and tell her, “Sweetie, it’s time to pee. I’ll be with you.” and let the crying begin. You don’t need to force her to the toilet: at whatever point she begins to cry, that’s a place to stop, be present, stay with her, and wait until the crying subsides a bit. Then, say, “OK, here we go. The hurting is all over. I’ll stay with you so you can find that out yourself.” Then continue to stay, listen, and let her  work on her fears. Most likely, since she’s been having such good long cries, she’s also working on other painful experiences…this pretext has become a good can-opener that lets her pour out other fears. You may see her yawn in the midst of crying–that’s a sign that what she’s working on was indeed something that involved illness or pain. We don’t know why, but yawns help the healing process when it’s a physical thing that happened to the child or grownup.

You don’t need to be afraid of this process, or to feel too badly for her. You did well by her, her body healed, and now, she’s healing from the feelings. With your warmth and help. Guide her along in this process, don’t talk too much (this distracts her from the work at hand, and doesn’t lessen that work, just wears you out and her too), and let her do the hard work, with you as her guide and partner. She’ll become more courageous in other ways because of this opportunity. I welcome you to join us for our  free teleseminar on Overcoming Fears Through Play or read more in depth about your child’s emotions in our Listening to Children Set.

Let us know how it goes!

Growing On Her Own Time

Hi Patty,

Group settings, especially large group settings, are very difficult for my daughter. I see a little girl who has some real fears of these situations, and it really hurts to see others judging because she is nervous and only wants to stay in my arms. She will often display behaviors like nose picking or finger sucking when someone addresses her. Oftentimes, the adult will then make a comment about the behavior, which only serves to make her more uncomfortable.

What gets under my skin are the repeated suggestions that she be put in preschool to help mitigate her social anxiety. I disagree with this, as she does fairly well around other kids and is involved in 2 activities, which afford her opportunities to be around other children. I don’t see how preschool would help mitigate anxieties that surface in large group, adult dominated settings. It feels like I’m being judged and found wanting, as if my being with her and raising her at home is not good enough. Even if that isn’t the intended purpose of those comments, that’s what it makes me feel.

I would love to hear any suggestions you might have, especially for playlistening, because my daughter really enjoys when we work on things that way.

-Perplexed for Playlistening

Hi Perplexed,

Good for you for holding your own amidst adults who are not attuned to your daughter’s needs, and whose advice and promptings (with all the best intentions) actually undermine her confidence. You are doing a good job of thinking for yourself here.

Here is a suggestion of a game I have often done is to hold a child in my arms, and peek in at a large group, then say, “Let’s run away!” in a playful, not playfully fearful, but simply playful tone. Then, I run, and the child jiggles along in my arms. We run maybe 20 feet, and then turn around and I pay attention, listening, seeing how the child is.

And when we’re connected and I’ve paid attention, I say, “Let’s peek again!” and tiptoe up to the gathering, peek in, and repeat. This often gets children laughing. You are not forcing the child past her comfort zone. You are staying close, body to body close, to provide safety. Your tone is playful, also providing safety. And you are creating a tiny, safe adventure, then taking the “Let’s get out of here!” role, so she is not the one who wants to run, you are. She is along for the ride.

This kind of game can go on for a whole hour. If there’s laughter, it can relieve a lot of tension, and help a child trust that you understand how much she really can handle at one time.

If you do this kind of game for a good long time, then you build enough safety to help her with the deeper level of feelings.

So then, after NOT forcing her to try to function past her comfort level, but eliciting laughter and staying close, you can propose to go in and talk to one person. And you don’t play, you say, “I’m going to help you go in and say hello to XYZ (the safest, kindest person available). Just for a minute.” and see if she can cry about the idea. You don’t DO it, you PROPOSE it, and Staylisten. You may need to nudge her physically toward the situation to get the tears to come, but they will come if you’ve built enough safety. Listen. Let her cry. Don’t give up on your proposal, but don’t do more than inch toward the situation you have proposed. An inch every 15 minutes should be plenty to keep the deeper fears rolling out and healing.

For a more in depth reading of playlistening and how your daughter’s emotions work, take a look at our Listening to Children set or read Helping You Child With Shyness. For a more in depth and hands on learning experience, we offer Building Emotional Understanding courses which offer a new perspective on your child’s emotional moments and how build and cultivate a strong relationship with your child.

Let us know how it goes.



Staylistening and Playground Politics

Antics on the playground can lead to solid cries at home

One afternoon when I was picking up my 1st grader from school, his friends told me he had a bad day.  According to them, he was tripped many times in PE and got excluded in the playground as he “bended” the rule and received, “You are fired!” from others.

I talked about my feelings about this with my listening partners as I was bullied at his age.

My son was certainly cranky the last 10 days or so.  I talked with his teachers and my husband about it.  I gathered information from other parents too.  His teacher dismissed it, said it was nothing.

A couple of days after his friends told me he had a bad day, My son was speaking harshly to his little brother.  I went in and reminded him that we would want to speak kindly to each other.  Instantly, he went into a big struggle and crying.

I harnessed him, reflecting inside if I had the right mind to do this.  My Listening Partnership earlier really helped, as I now had more attention available.

I hoped I was doing the right thing even though I was worried if someone were to come in and see us, that they might think I was hurting him.

I made sure he was safe, safe from furniture, safe from me, and safe from himself.  I spoke to him, “I want to hear more about what happened today.”  More thrashing.  “You can say I can play by the rule, let’s do that again!”  I almost got hit and kicked really hard.  “I know you are a good boy.”  More screaming and intense feelings.  Then he stopped crying and thrashing, coming into my arms sweetly.

This was all while I had to be cooking dinner.  Rice and curry turned out to be a bit chewy as I couldn’t attend the stove.  However, my son ate a lot and he was in a good mood.  He was relaxed, sweet and cuddly all evening.  He would give me small presents and even offered me a massage going to sleep, even though he is the one who normally gets one.

My son didn’t share much about school events verbally.  What he shared with us grownups was that he actually liked what happened to him.  His body language seemed to tell me otherwise, but his teacher saw nothing problematic.

When I paid attention to him, his tone of voice, body language, and his mood, it told me something else.  His daily crankiness and his friend’s story gave me a small clue to what may be bothering him.

I wanted to tell him that I loved him, that he was a good boy, that he could be himself and still find a place in this world and change the world.  I am glad I now can convey that, instead of having just another cranky child receiving a lecture, a time-out or a yell if I hadn’t known better.  I am grateful that my son and I feel closer at the same time he feels more relaxed and confident.

—Keiko Sato-Perry, Certified Parenting by Connection Instructor

Keiko Sato-Perry

Join Keiko in her upcoming Building Emotional Understanding online class starting April 22.  Register now!

Listen to a podcast of a recent teleseminar “Parenting: Going Deeper”, in which Keiko presented.

You can read more of Keiko’s stories here and learn more about Parenting by Connection in the Listening to Children booklet set.

Hair Washing Glee!

bathtime can be a great time for playlistening

When my son was about 21 months old, he started to hate having water poured over his head when I washed his hair in the bath. He would scream and scream every time, even when I was meticulously careful not to get any suds or water in his eyes.

After a few weeks of this battle, I remembered what Patty told us about Playlistening. One night, during his bath, but before washing his hair, I took the special hair-washing cup and (discreetly making sure it was empty first!) held it upside down over my head. I shrieked, pretended to cry, and shook my head back and forth. My son howled with laughter!

He kept handing me the cup over and over again with a big smile on his face, and he laughed uproariously as I feigned intense distress. In between mock cup-pourings, I would smile at him to let him know I was okay. Gradually my hair got wet from the traces of water in the cup, and he was fascinated to touch my wet hair and rub the top of my head, which was now quite wet.

Later in the bath, when I washed his hair, he clearly did not enjoy it much, but he sat still and did not actually scream. Over the course of the next week or so, I always preceded washing his hair with play-washing mine, complete with loud shrieks and cries. He continued to laugh with abandon, and touch my wet hair with fascination. Now he has taken control of the cup, and insists on being the one to hold it over my head! It took three or four baths, but now he does not object to his hair being washed. In fact, what was once a torture session for both of us, is now one of his most gleeful games. In the evening when I say, “bath time!” he runs into the bathroom to get the cup, and runs over to me with it, laughing and holding it out to me!

– A mother in Pacifica, California

Wanting Mama

a good cry can be the best way to recover a smile

My daughter is 3, and she’s going to pre-school now. My husband and I have recently separated. Ella loves school. She talks about it enthusiastically when she’s at home, and she likes being there, but has a very difficult time when I leave her there. She wraps herself around me, clings tightly, and won’t let me get out the door. This has been going on for awhile.

Yesterday, after we got home from school, she was feisty and cranky. I was fixing her a snack, and I could tell that bad feelings were close to the surface. The last straw for her was that the chair I had set out for her was in the “wrong” place. I knew that this was an opportunity to help her with how she felt, so I didn’t fix it.

She ran across the room, upset about the chair. I went over to sit next to her. She was trying to cry, but wasn’t crying yet–it was a kind of “fake” crying. I sat with her, and told her as gently as I could, “That chair is just in the wrong place,” trying to help her feel her upset fully. She said, “I don’t need you!” and ran away from me. I moved to about 4 feet away from her again, and said, “I’m going to stay nearby, I don’t want to leave you right now.” She kept moving away from me, across the room or into another room, and I kept moving near her again. Each time she became more upset and getting closer to a real cry. Finally, as I moved in towards her she didn’t run away. Instead she lay on the floor kicking and repeating, “I don’t need you!” Then, I said, “I’m sorry I can’t stay with you in the morning at school, but I just can’t.” She began to cry hard. I asked, “Does it make you mad?” She nodded no. I asked, “Does it make you sad?” She nodded no, then she nodded yes, and began to cry really hard. I told her again that I was sorry I couldn’t stay with her in the mornings at school. She kept crying hard, and began to say, “I want Mommy! I want Mommy!” She was sobbing, and she came and curled into my arms and cried hard for awhile. It was lovely to hold her and help her with these feelings. At some point, she just stopped, as though we’d been having a conversation and the subject had changed. That was all.

The next morning, when it was time for me to leave her at school, she ran up to me, gave me a big hug and a kiss, and said, “Bye, Mommy!” and then ran off to play. What a change! I have to tell you that the morning after that, she was feeling things again, and clung to me–I think because our life has been unsettled at home, she isn’t finished with this yet. But it was great to see what a good cry could do for her.

– A mother in San Francisco, California

Helping a Child Make Good Use of a Tantrum

when children’s behavior looks off track, they are really asking for help

My husband and I had a friend visiting us and toward the end of the visit, my son started to play with the TV remote control, increasing the volume while we tried to talk, again and again. All of our requests to stop were ignored. Then he went to his little sister who was sitting on the floor, and stepped on her. It was not an accident, and I realized he was signaling me. I told him very softly that he could not do this and I took him in my arms, and went with him to the garage. I said goodbye to our friend and told my husband that I need some time alone with our son.

My son started to struggle in my arms and said, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I won’t do it again!” When I continued to hold him on my lap, he started shouting, “Let me go! I don’t want to be here, I want to go back! You are hurting me!”

By now, I was sitting with him on my lap, looking at him and saying very softly, “I know you don’t want to be here, but we need to be here. I’m with you now and I’ll keep you safe here.” The more I talked the more he started to fight me and shouted while crying, “Let me go, you are hurting me!” I held him really gently with my hand on his back.  My fingertips were barely touching his back. He shouted, “You are hurting my back, don’t touch me!” It was obvious to me that it was not my physical holding that was hurting him, but old hurts and fears which were being released.

He tried several tactics to avoid these feelings. He asked me to hold him with his face looking away from me. It was clear that my eye contact brought up more painful feelings. He asked to open the garage door so he could “see more things,” and it was clear he was looking for a distraction. He asked for water. He said he was hot and needed a shower. His requests went on.

The whole time I kept holding him gently, telling him that it is safe now and I am with him. Then, my son started coughing and holding his neck. He complained he has pain in his throat. This reminded me that he had had a surgery when he was 3 years old. His adenoids had been removed.  I was wondering if this was part of the hurt he was offloading now.

He cried more and coughed more and I held him in my arms and wiped his tears. I was talking to him softly the whole time. He cried less and less with time.

After about 20 or 30 minutes, he asked to go to the bathroom. I agreed and we went together and this ended the episode.

I knew he was not completely finished, but I knew he had cried away a big chunk of what was sitting inside him for so long. I felt we both had had enough for that day, and that new triggers would come and allow him to work again on his fears.

Even though we didn’t complete the cry, I saw how relaxed he was afterwards and how different his behavior was. He was much more connected.

I had had a Listening Partnership a few days before this happened. I had worked on my own deep fears of setting limits with him. The LP release gave me the ability to stay calm and loving and not let my own fears take over and interfere.  It gave me back my confidence in the process which I needed very much.

Two weeks after all this happened, I had another opportunity to Staylisten with him. The amazing thing for me was that he actually invited me to Staylisten the way we did it before.

It started when he came back from his preschool and was restless. He tried slapping his brother’s back when he walked by, then immediately moved into slapping my back. I felt he was signaling me again.

I turned around to face him, sat down next to him and said, “You can not hit your brother or me.” Before I could complete my sentence my son asked me, “Are you going to take me again to the garage like last time? Is it going to take a long time?” I said, “Yes, I am going to take you to the garage and I will be there with you.”

He insisted that we sit in the same place; he sat on my lap in the same position like before. At the same time, he didn’t want me putting my hand on his back. It was like he knew he needed this, but still resisted the feelings that came.

This time he easily started crying and cried in my arms for about 10 minutes. When he was done we went to his room and he wanted to play with me. He was very connected and happy. That evening we had dinner at our friend’s house. My son played with their children the whole evening. In the past, if he didn’t know children well, he would sit next to me and my husband the whole time. This time he was flexible and very friendly, and we could see the difference. I’m sure that having the opportunity to offload some of his fears left him free to engage in play with the other kids.