Angry & Defiant Children: Is Food the Miracle Cure?

Well-timed nutrition can eliminate irritability and tantrums caused by our "hangry" children.

When I think back to my work at a therapeutic boarding school for preteen girls, I really can't count the number of times a major emotional meltdown was prevented by a granola bar or a handful of trail mix. "Hangriness" is real, people. As adults, when we are waiting to get breakfast at Sunny Point Cafe (where the wait is notoriously long), we can silently anger-cry in desperation and eat all the house-made jam off the table (that's definitely not something I've ever done). As adults, we can name our feeling- hangry- and understand this temporary emotional reaction is caused by our blood sugar dipping too low. Kids don't have that same kind of self-awareness or understanding. Sometimes, the way kids tell us "I'm hungry" is by screaming, dropping to the ground in a puddle of disagreement, refusing to cooperate, saying regrettable things, and just generally being bratty.

For this reason, in general, I recommend that parents offer a healthy, protein-rich meal or snack every 2 hours. In my work as a therapist I've found that this simple modification can have a dramatic positive impact on a child. Also, try to keep a few healthy snacks on hand, in the glove-box of your car or in your purse, for blood-sugar-related emotional emergencies. Heck, I do that for myself! Sometimes traffic is terrible, and I just get hangry on the drive home. 

Feeding can communicate nurturance, love, and safety. 

Part of why we use feeding as a standard activity at the end of each Theraplay® session is because feeding is a deeply relational and comforting act. All mammals feed their young, including humans all across the globe. Feeding our children is a non-verbal way to communicate love. We are saying, "Your needs matter. I want to nourish you. I want you to feel healthy and experience all the deliciousness life has to offer." The child is internalizing, "I matter. I deserve good things. I can trust that the adults in my life will care for me."

When feeding is irregular or there is a history of neglect, issues around food can easily develop. 

Little ones who experienced neglect or inconsistent care early in life may feel deeply insecure about food's availability and their worth. This fear can drive all sorts of unhealthy behaviors, including food hoarding, binge-eating, stealing food, self-starvation, obsessiveness and secrecy around food. Kids with attachment disorders commonly develop these problems. Part of how we correct that in Theraplay is through helping the child really experience the parents hand-feeding her. We really help the child to understand on a "felt" level (not just a logical level) that food is always available to her and that her parents want her to have it. We create a sense of safety around food.

Part of offering the healthy snacks every 2 hours is reinforcing for the food-insecure child that food will always be available. It helps to level out the blood-sugar, sure, but perhaps more importantly, it communicates, "Your needs matter. I want to nourish you. You are safe." Who knew a granola bar could mean so much! If the child's food insecurity is severe enough, we also may make modifications to the child's daily life, such as wearing a fanny pack full of healthy snacks at all times, or keeping a small basket of pre-wrapped food in the child's room that the parents are responsible for refilling. As the child learns on a foundational level that food is "here to stay," the preoccupation with it usually quiets down.

Seek professional help if you are concerned about your child's relationship with food- Taking some quick tips off a blog does not count!

Eating disorders have one of the highest mortality rates of any mental health disorder. A lot of physical and psychological harm can be prevented by seeking the advice of a counselor, therapist or social worker when you are concerned about your child's behaviors around food. 

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