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My Child Won't Eat

Toddler and Teenager Expert Advice from Carleton Kendrick, Ed.M., LCSW

Q: I'm at wits' end trying to get my 3 1/2-year-old boy to eat. He always says he's not hungry. He's generally active and seems happy, but to get him to eat anything is a chore of grand proportions. I'm not about to succumb to giving him tasty but nutritionally deficient "junk" food just to get him to eat. I'll keep at him -- sometimes for hours -- just to get him to eat something. It's amazing that he can keep a bite in his mouth for so long without swallowing. Should I keep nagging him? Or sweeten the deal with some junk-food "carrots"? Or should I leave him alone and just let him eat when he gets hungry? The only problem with the latter is that he never seems to get hungry. I'm afraid for his health. What do you suggest?

A: This problem has developed into something far larger than whether your son is eating or not; this problem is now much more about power than food. Who will win, your son or you? Will you nag him into eating or will he wear you down with his refusals until you leave him alone? First, you have to totally back off nagging and end this power struggle; short of strapping him down and feeding him intravenously, he can always win this power game. I don't know how or why his eating, which is a natural response to hunger, has turned into a battleground; I don't know enough history from your question to offer an opinion on that. I do know the battle must stop. Far too much stress is involved in his eating; you have to normalize this area of his life.

Have you discussed this problem with your pediatrician? Is your son a healthy weight and height for his age? Is he exhibiting any symptoms of malnutrition? You must know the answers to these questions immediately. Children at this age often go through stages where not much of any food appeals to them, but a child who always says he's not hungry is very rare. I assume he is eating and drinking something or else he literally could not function. Does he refuse food offered him by other people? When he is out of your house with someone else, does the same eating problem persist?

It is possible that this has now become a power struggle with you and no one else. If that is the case, there is a problem between you and him that is not really food-related but shows up most when you ask him to eat. I would declare to him that you are through trying to get him to eat. Tell him that at certain times during the day and night you are going to put out some food for him and leave the room; if he wants to eat it then or later, that's fine with you. Make a variety of healthy, tasty, nutritious foods available and ask him if he wants you to include anything special he would like. Keep water and/or his favorite beverage in a sippy cup, always available for him to grab and drink. Chart how much food and drink he takes in during this experiment; don't chart it in front of him. You may want to contact a pediatric dietitian or nutritionist to help you choose the array of foods you offer him. On occasion, ask him if he would get you food to eat; let him choose the food he gives. Be sure to eat it. This behavior radically shifts the former food dynamic between you and him and puts him in a new cooperating position with food. Pretty sneaky, aren't I ?

More on: Expert Advice

Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.


Please note: This "Expert Advice" area of FamilyEducation.com should be used for general information purposes only. Advice given here is not intended to provide a basis for action in particular circumstances without consideration by a competent professional. Before using this Expert Advice area, please review our General and Medical Disclaimers.

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