Tantrums at the Table: How to Handle Challenging Behaviors at Mealtimes

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Throwing food – complaining during meals – child getting up from the table, there is no shortage of challenges at mealtimes that push our buttons. I had the pleasure of speaking with Debbie Zeichner, parenting coach and mindfulness facilitator, for an eye-opening and engaging discussion. Watch our conversation as we dive into how we can come from a place of empathy within ourselves and our children, at mealtimes.

Here are some of the key takeaways:

  1. We are all on a different journey, and it’s important not to compare your journey to someone else’s. No one’s parenting or feeding journey looks the same. We all have different things we bring to the table, so to speak. Start where you are right now.

  2. Don’t take it personally. Kids are not out to get us and it’s not personal. Many of these behaviors are developmentally appropriate.

  3. Check your expectations about what mealtimes “should” look like. Many times our expectations are unrealistic (how long our children should stay at the table, how much food they should be eating). We need to stop and ask ourselves what’s realistic.

  4. Be mindful of our self-talk. We can get in our head: “Oh, my, what’s wrong? Not this again, I can’t handle this anymore. This is ridiculous, when will this end?” If you come from this place, it’s harder to approach your child in a very calm, patient and compassionate way. If you can shift that self-talk to: “It’s okay this is happening. My child’s acting like a three year old, because she has a three year old, I can handle this,” it becomes easier to react to these situations.

  5. Give yourself some grace, and treat yourself with kindness and compassion, especially in those moments when mealtime is really stressful. Know that this is just a moment in time. Start to notice within your body, what your feeling. It’s rare that we actually as parents, especially busy moms stop to say, “How do I feel? What do I need right now.” Check in: what’s your breathing like? Are your shoulders tense? Sometimes taking a breath and releasing can make such a big difference.

  6. Connection is about empathy. It’s about validation, and acknowledgement. So it’s recognizing where our child is in the moment, rather than coming at them with logic. What might this look like in practice: “I see you really want to throw your food, I know, that seems like so much fun. And food stays on our plate. Or let me give you something else to play with.” It’s about acknowledging the need that your child has and the emotions that are probably underneath the behavior itself. Behavior is so often a form of communication. When your child is constantly throwing food, what does that behavior trying to tell you? Are they not hungry? Are they bored? Do they not like it? Or are they just curious, and they just want to see what happens, right? It’s think about what that behavior is trying to communicate and how we can meet their needs. Once we come at our child with a consequence, or a punishment, or our anger, their brain shuts down. And they cannot take in any of those beautiful lessons that we want to teach them. Connect is about connecting with your child, seeing your child, helping your child feel seen and understood, while still setting firm limits and boundaries.

And there you have it. How to Handle Challenging Behaviors at Mealtimes, especially those tantrums at the table.

Debbie Zeichner, LCSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Parent Coach and Mindfulness Facilitator who has specialized in working with parents and families for over 20 years. Debbie’s newest course, Taking the Struggle Out of Power Struggles, is now live. you can find out more information HERE, and also follow her on Instagram and Facebook.