As I was making my daily read through Facebook yesterday I came across this blog post which talks about how we handle difficult situations. Dr. Hanson encourages us to recognize that a situation is difficult, accept it, and then let it go. He says that fighting or resisting against the difficulty doesn’t help, if anything it just makes you more stressed, frustrated, or unhappy. He isn’t saying to just lie down and take it, though. I think what he is saying is that by recognizing the hardship and letting go of the stress that goes with it, we are able to reserve our resources for the things that do matter.
As I read this approach I thought about a number of aspects of my life in which I should try to do this- from when I am stuck in bad traffic to when my plans for the day are thrown off because of a hiccup in childcare to pushing through a really hard workout that has me exhausted. But the difficulty that stood out the most in my mind was handling my “picky” eater.
As I have written about before, my three-and-a-half-year-old has very clear ideas about what he does and does not like. He is very unlikely to want to try a new food (unless it is meat) and often is just not interested in sitting down for a meal. Because of his size—he is very small—this has always been a source of concern for us. We have tried every recommended approach under the sun and have often resorted to hidden vegetables in muffins and sauces. As an example, with my older son whenever he said he didn’t want something, we would ask that he take just a bite and if he didn’t like it, then he could say “no thank you.” It worked like a dream. He always tried and he almost always realized he loved the food. My younger one? No way. That approach has led to clenched lips and then a refusal to eat anything on the plate, even the foods he does like. Stressful.
So a couple of months ago I finally decided to take the leap and try the hands-off approach that I had been reading about for years. The food would be offered and whatever was eaten, was eaten—no judgment either good or bad. As parents we would model trying new things, eating all the different foods, and enjoying our meal. Meals would be a time to be together rather than a time to get through. And while we weren’t going to cajole or pressure him to eat, we were going to ask that he sit with us so we could spend time together. This was a scary leap for us to take because of his size and history with food. But since nothing else was working, we decided to give it a try.
Now this is where the acknowledging and allowing difficulty comes in. Keeping my mouth shut and even more than that, letting go of my anxiety around his eating, has been very difficult. It has been really hard to let him leave the table when he has barely touched his food. It has been hard to watch the green food go untouched. But I have found that the calmer I am (and genuinely calm, not pretending to be calm), the calmer he is. Some of those family meals have been really difficult., even painful. But sitting with the discomfort and letting it happen, really has helped.
We have been at this now for probably two months and while I don’t want to jinx anything, my husband and I have both noticed that our son is starting not only to sit for longer at the table and eat more of his food, but that he is asking to try new things. He has discovered that he likes kiwis! He has asked for second helpings of certain dishes! I have also noticed that his school lunch is now coming back eaten, rather than picked over. And he has even started showing more of an interest in cooking!
I am starting to think that acknowledging the difficult situation, that being present and calm, and that recognizing that all I could change was my reaction to my son’s eating and not his eating has been an amazing shift. We aren’t out of the woods yet, there will still be difficult meals, but I have to say that my parenting has been enriched by this experience. And for that I am grateful.