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How tantrums could be related to nutrition?

Jul 06, 2021
By Ayah Sarhan - Certified Parenting and Family Relations Coach

Abraham Maslow is the psychologist best known for the theory explaining how successful people fulfill their needs in priority known as the hierarchy of needs:

  1. Physiological,
  2. Emotional and physical safety,
  3. Social connectedness,
  4. Need for success,
  5. Self- actualization and becoming the best version of ourselves.

 Our daily actions are therefore based on which level needs fulfilling; needs are motives for a behavior.  And this applies to children too, but their limited ability to express a need can force them to behave and act in ways that maybe unacceptable to parents.  When a parent responds, the child develops trust for others, and builds the ability of coping with different feelings.

Food is a basic level 1 need; when children are hungry, their blood sugar drops, and this may cause them to be less energetic.  When this is prolonged, they start feeling uncomfortable and emotional (anxious, irritable, etc.) and may get some physical pain (headaches), which moves them to level 2: the need to feel emotionally and physically safe.  In case the environment or people do not help them express their need, they start feeling disconnected, which moves them to level 3: a need to feel understood and connected. Eventually, an unbalanced and inconsistent diet will lead to an imbalance of certain nutrients, vitamins, and minerals, which may affect the ability to perform and succeed in life (level 4 needs).

For example, a baby will give what we call early cues for expressing hunger.  If the mother doesn't recognize, and respond to these cues, the baby will start feeling uncomfortable and cry.  Again if this cry was not attended to, its severity will increase.  However, when a mother responds by attentively and lovingly breastfeeding her baby, she is helping her baby satisfy the biological need, and the emotional need for safety, in addition to the need for bonding and connectedness (level 1, 2, 3). This caring response to an infant's cry is a crucial step in formulating the base of a trusting and loving relationship.  It provides what we call a secure attachment and builds resilience as babies learn how to cope with their emotions in the presence of a safe environment such as the mother's hug.  It simply communicates that you are listening and can understand, and also teaches your child to respond and listen to you too as they grow up. 

In essence, nutrition takes an additional dimension as it becomes an opportunity to build a strong relationship with your child.  Think about the family gatherings around lunch or dinner and how it makes you feel.  It is not just the "what" to eat but "how" and "with who" especially during childhood. 

To put it in another way; crying, tantrums and even rebellion are various forms of self-expression by children to tell their parents they need something.  When children are hungry or thirsty and are unable to identify it, they won't be able to express it rationally; they are not feeling okay and their emotions are too much to handle, they are showing signs but can't get your attention and help, so they will seek something to make them feel better.  They will think to themselves "maybe a candy will make this bad feeling go away".  Their request for candy then turns into a big emotional scene.   

Skillfully handling these emotions is important, but also providing children with a balanced and nutritious diet and regular water intake will stabilize their blood sugar levels and minimize extreme emotional outbursts.  Here are some fun and easy tips to prevent nutrition-related tantrums:

Have consistent mealtimes that would allow children to know when food is served yet flexible in case there are changes in their daily schedule or activity. 

Make sure to have at least one meal per week (preferably per day) where you get together around the dining table to prepare or eat food together.  Cherish such precious moments and enjoy it, allow it to be light; open a conversation, laugh about something.  Imagine that it's an outing with some of your friends.

The most effective strategy with children is being their role model and that requires you have a good relationship with them and be genuine in your actions (not just pretending).  So enjoy a healthy nutritious lifestyle, and express your happiness doing it.

Ensure that they drink enough water on daily basis.  Let him/her choose a flask that you will use for daily water lemon drink or lemonade with honey for hydration (at school, outings, home).

Check with your health coach options for healthy snacking for your kids when they need it: 

  • My own favorites are fruits and veggies peeled and cut in small cubes in containers.
  • Bananas, apples, tangerine, and cucumbers are also convenient.
  • Make sure that children under the age of 3 are given snacks that don't present a hazard for choking.

Children who refuse a certain food item or category could be refusing the food's format or timing: 

  • Introduce the same food at different times.
  • Get creative and present it in different shapes or formats. There are some cake recipes that include zucchini, carrots, bananas, apples, etc.

Children enjoy feeling independent (a level 4 need) and being in control of their physical environment (varies across children):

  • Increase accessibility to unbreakable cups and plates.
  • Prepare food that they can eat right away (cut fruits and veggies in containers they can reach and open).
  • Buy safe utensils they can use (your supervision) and hence feel involved in preparing their food and helping you (an added bonus!).

Children get excited or anxious when introduced to new people or put in environments outside their home (even if it's a place they visited before). Always check in with them and listen to their concerns.  They will be busy understanding and coping with the new stimuli and won't take notice of their early hunger cues.  So offer water and food regularly.  In case you are out and there are no healthy options, just give them something to EAT.

Avoid grocery shopping with your children close to mealtimes or when your child is hungry.  Involve your child in the shopping list, meal suggestions and preparation. 

Finally, both children and food are two blessings that can be enjoyed when understood and handled properly.

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