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How to End Power Struggles Over Food and Sleep

How many times have you been in a power struggle with your child over food or sleep?

One big reason parents get trapped into these types of power struggles is because we think we “should” have the power to decide what, when and how much our child eats, and how, when and where our child should sleep. After all, we’ve been making those decisions since they were born.

But as I’ve said before, “A parent’s job is to slowly release a child to him or her self, bit by bit.” Doing that is a long slow p-r-o-c-e-s-s that begins around age 2 when a child is making their first bid for independence. The truth is, trying to control “all” food and sleep issues will only end up trapping you in power struggles.

The key to ending the struggles is to give your child “some” control — without relinquishing “total” control. 

How do you do that? You begin by being honest about what you can and can’t control, and change course when you find yourself forcing the issue.

Ending Struggles Over Food

You know you can’t force your child to eat something if they don’t want to. They’ll just shut their mouth, spit it out or throw up. However, there are ways to make things a bit easier and help stop power struggles on your end.

Your child’s stomach is the size of “her” fist. As long as she’s gaining weight and eating healthfully, you can drop the forcing and power struggles. Food struggles can be especially dangerous for girls. Teens can use eating or not eating as a form of rebellion or to make decisions about their image. It’s best to make food a non-issue.

Do a palate test. Make one dish three ways, really bland, the “normal” way, and a spicy version. My oldest shocked me when he chose the spicy version.

Children are natural grazers. Prepare 6 snack-like meals instead of three full meals. Things like apples with raisin faces, carrots dipped in avocado, celery stuffed with peanut butter, turkey and cheese roll-ups. Nothing too elaborate, just healthy. Create a small area where your child can find the healthy food whenever he or she is hungry. The trick is to let them spoon the food themselves, and clean up the mess.

If you want family mealtime, feed kids 30 minutes before adults, then let them join you for desert. That way any power issues are handled by asking the child to leave the table. There’s no loss of the healthy food, just desert.

Ending Struggles Over Sleep

Parents want children to go to sleep and stay asleep all by themselves. This is a step-by-step process, not something a parent can insist upon without getting into a power struggle. There’s too much development happening inside your child to expect instant results. Even Super Nanny’s approach takes five days to a week to achieve.

There are only two possible outcomes for any sleep method: success or failure. Just like food, you can’t force a child to sleep. You can insist they stay in bed, but you can’t really insist or force sleep. Here are a few things to help sleep arrive.

You both n-e-e-d sleep. Staying focused on the goal of achieving sleep, versus the goal of getting your child to sleep without you, will reduce power struggles.

There is a window of sleepiness that shows you when to begin the bedtime process, miss it and your child gets wild again.

Announcing, “It’s time for bed” means, “time to separate” to your child. Try, “time for bath” instead. He’ll still try to postpone bedtime by whining, crying, negotiating or saying no. That’s age appropriate. All parenting changes require a shift in your thinking first, accepting and ignoring his protest, and lovingly doing it anyway.

Add ¼ cup of table salt and some Gerber’s Lavender Bedtime Bath to bath water. The magnesium in salt leaches tension out of muscles and the lavender makes them sleepy.

Last week’s article, How to Deal with Back Talk from Your Kids, showed you how to drop your end of a power struggle. Food and sleep issues require that you drop your end of the rope, give your child enough power to gain cooperation, and time.

Sharon Silver is the author of Stop Reacting and Start Responding: 108 Ways to Discipline Consciously and Become the Parent You Want to Be, and the founder of Proactive Parenting (dot) NET. Her book and site help parents gain more patience by responding instead of reacting as they deal with the whirlwind of emotions created by raising kids ages 1-10. To receive 2 FREE tips from the book go to: Find Sharon on Twitter and Facebook

7 Responses to “How to End Power Struggles Over Food and Sleep”

  1. Dana Prince

    It's a battle for me to get my 5 year old to eat healthy,so finally learned to give him choices and I make it fun such as cutting the food into shapes and serving him his meal in a muffin tin and also using fun food picks.

  2. @TereesAmoore

    My daughter is six and in the first grade. My battle right now is trying to get her to go to sleep at night. Mostly I can get her into bed, but there is always so excuse that she needs this or that. Wednesday, she did not go to sleep till almost 10pm and on Thursday, she has 3 test every week. I do not know if it is something more, maybe she needs to burn off more energy before bedtime. By the time she finally goes to sleep, I am wide awake. Any suggestions more would be great!

  3. giveawayhound

    I think the best way to deal with sleep and eating issues is to give kids a good start. We've done a bedtime routine with our son since he was an infant. It's changed a little but not much, and he's an excellent sleeper. We've never battled over food, either. I give him a variety of healthy options throughout the day and he chooses what and how much he wants to eat. I don't try to force him to eat if he doesn't want to. I think that only encourages overeating later in life because you take away children's ability to sense when they're hungry or not. I disagree with your advice on having the kids eat 30 minutes earlier than the adults. Our son always eats at the table with us for the full meal and I think that i one of the most important times of the day for us. It's one of the few times we're all together as a family. And I think participating in conversation and enjoying time together as a family is very important for his social development and our family life.

  4. miriama

    My daughter hasn't slept a night through in about 6 months. My grandson, 15 months old, nurses and wakes her up every few hours. I feel bad..she has tried everything. The letting your baby cry? The walls in their apartment are so thin she just knows the neighbors can hear and she worries about that. Her husband sleeps on the couch so he can go to work in the morning. I have no idea what to tell her and her pediatrician seems clueless to me. I am really worried about my daughter. My grandson has never taken to a bottle or a pacifier and so those options are out.

  5. Farrah

    My oldest is almost 3- so we are JUST getting to this point right now. The twins are young- 15 months, so I don't have to worry about them yet. The only thing I get down on my knees and say THANK YOU for is the fact that they're all boys. Oh man. The battles with girls? I couldn't do it.

  6. Victoria

    My son doesn't always want to eat everything we eat for dinner. So what we usually do is give him more of what he does like. He doesn't always want to eat meat, therefore we give him more vegetables which he loves. As long as he's eating healthy and nutritious foods I'm happy. We're able to spend a lot of time together as a family each evening anyway so I wouldn't be opposed to feeding him 30 minutes before us parents eat. I could totally see where that would be helpful sometimes. Often as a parent, it's hard to feel like you get to eat in peace which can sometimes make parents feel weary. So feeding kids 30 minutes before parents could safe some grief for both the kids and the parents.

    As far as sleep goes, whatever choices I can offer my son does help. Whether it's letting him choose a different blanket or a certain activity to look forward to the next day, it usually does help some.

  7. Harriett Daniel

    Those are some great tips. I like the snack area one. Letting the kids seem like they have the control over their own eating. It helps to develop great habits!


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