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“I’m always worried that my child isn’t getting enough nutrition. He will only eat certain foods and often leaves half his lunch.” Eating issues can be worrisome for parents—a child who doesn’t eat lunch, a picky eater, a child who only eats white foods or demands sweets.

When there are concerns and struggles over food, it’s easy to forget one of the most important components of children getting the vital nourishment they need from what they eat—the connection of food with free-flowing love.

In our culture, with competing diets and changing assertions about which foods are bad for us and good for us, it’s easy to forget about the importance of associating eating with happiness and well-being, rather than worry and restriction.

Can you remember times as a child when eating brought a sense of comfort and love? I remember that when our family ate ravioli or my mother’s incredible potato salad, my siblings and I rarely argued. Think about the nourishment provided by meals you have had that were specially prepared and served with love.

Sometimes the pressure to ensure our children eats “healthy foods” can make us forget what it’s like to be a child—how strange new foods can taste, how coercion to eat certain foods makes us resist them. It’s important for parents to act as if that they think children can make good choices when it comes to eating and view children’s explorations of food as a learning experience. It’s normal to have food preferences, and we feel validated when people notice our favorite foods and honor our aversions to certain textures and tastes. Our individual predilections for food reflect our genetic make-up and neurodiversity.

Dietician and family therapist Ellyn Satter has developed the term “eating competence” to describes children’s abilities to develop a joyful, positive relationship with food. She urges parents to believe that a child knows how much they need to eat and will eventually learn to eat food the family enjoys. We want to trust that children will eat at their own pace, some days a lot, others not so much, but they will determine how hungry they are.

It’s important for children to learn to tune in to the way their bodies feel—when they are hungry or when they are full. With eating disorders on the rise in adolescents, an emphasis on feeling happy with food and with one’s own body is the best prevention for later ills.

It's nice to replace worry about food with a focus on making meal times and discussions about food happy and enjoyable. There are many resources online and in person, to help parents make healthy eating a stress-free topic and mealtimes convivial and fun.

Here are two resources you might find helpful:

Kids Eat In Color is an online program for “parents of picky children who want to reduce stress and get their children on the road to eating more foods.”

Nutritionist and family therapist Ellyn Satter’s “Eating Competence” model is about “being positive, comfortable, and flexible with eating as well as matter-of-fact and reliable about getting enough to eat of personally enjoyable, nourishing food.”

What will the next thing be like? When our children are about to make a transition, it’s natural to want to talk to them about the positive ways their lives will change. Culturally, we tend to view this as a form of reassurance. Yet imagining the future prematurely can make children feel anxious and cause them to regress in surprising ways.

The period before a change is actually a perfect time to talk about the past and review a children’s growth and accomplishments, especially over the past year. Adults  are children’s historians, the ones who help them build an autobiography. Psychologists note that one of the ways children construct their sense of who they are is through reminiscence of previous events in their lives.

In a practical way, hearing about their accomplishments bolsters children’s self-esteem for the next steps they’ll be taking. Reflecting on what we've done well balances out the human tendency to look ahead with trepidation. “When you started kindergarten, you didn’t know all the sounds of the letters. Now look how much you know!” “You’ve gained so many amazing writing skills in first grade!” Children’s progress can be recorded in scrapbooks of work, an album of photos (“Look how big you are now!”) or as a springboard for talking together about memories.

Perhaps most importantly, parents and teachers can chronicle the ways they've handled challenges in the past. “Remember when you didn't know anyone in your class? Look how many friends you have now!” It helps to stay aware that children wonder if they're capable of handling the next challenge, even if they deny it. Looking at evidence of past growth (rather than lecturing on how well they're going to do) fills their cups with the taste of past glory—and propels their confidence that they can handle life.

The basis for supporting children through change is believing they will do well, and talking about all their growth and success reminds us of that reality.

When my dad yelled “Calm down!” he didn’t mean “Find a quiet place within yourself” or “Take a deep breath and blow out slowly.” “Calm down” was his code for “Stop what you’re doing, turn down the noise.” My father became a parent before there was research on concrete ways to help children step out of a state of agitation or anxiety and into a feeling of well-being. However, he did emphasize the value of outdoor physical activity every day, something we know now is one of the best antidotes to depression.

It seems important to mention the growth of our knowledge about promoting well-being during May, Mental Health Awareness Month. Parents and teachers today are more knowledgeable about the importance of encouraging children to talk about feelings underlying behavior rather than demanding that they stop feeling or behaving a certain way. We look for the reasons for the behavior.

Last week the parent of a Meher School second grader in the rush of getting ready for work asked her daughter why seemed to be upset about everything that morning. Her daughter confessed she was nervous about taking a test. “I told her how great it was that she told me and gave her a long hug that made us both feel better.”

Today we know the importance of adults being able to empathize with and validate children’s difficult feelings, so they don’t feel compelled to act them out. We are also armed with information about how to support children to self-soothe on the spot when they are experiencing agitated emotions.

Here are some quick calming techniques:

  • Recent research shows that hugging for 20 seconds reduces stress hormones in the blood and increases oxytocin. Long hugs also support feelings of trust and optimism.

  • Counting to a high number helps switch reactions to the thinking side of the brain.

  • Singing or humming a tune can bring about a state of calm and reduce anxiety.

  • Clenching and releasing fists helps a child be aware of body tensions and let go of them.

  • Drinking cold water can stimulate the vagus nerve, slowing down the heart rate and supporting a feeling of calm.

  • Running, jumping, and roughhousing release pent-up energy.

As a community, there are countless ways we nurture one another’s beliefs that we each matter equally and deserve to feel safe, accepted in our uniqueness, and loved.

The Equity & Inclusion Committee has focused on wonderful classroom activities that reflect advances in our understanding of the importance of our role in supporting children’s mental health.

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