Care and Feeding

Dear Care and Feeding: We’re All Prisoners to My Daughter’s Wild Meal-Time Habit

This is a vicious cycle.

Little girl screaming.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Wavebreakmedia Ltd/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 8-year-old daughter is awesome. I can brag about all the ways she is delightful, except when she’s hungry. Or tired. Now, you might say, “Hey, she’s 8. Just tell her to have a cheese stick and move on.” Trust me, I’ve tried. But when she’s hungry, she’s not open to the idea of food. My husband and I joke about missing her window, but it’s not a funny joke.

There is a very narrow window (maybe 20 minutes) between when she starts being willing to eat food and when she is so unbelievably hungry that she cannot be reasoned with, cannot sit at the table, speak without screaming, or act appropriately. There is a vicious cycle when we miss her window at dinner time because the hunger leads her to act like a wild animal. Doors are slammed, beloved objects are thrown, things are broken and ripped, and humans she loves are scratched. If we manage to get some food in her, she will calm down—almost instantly— and apologize. This happens at this level more than weekly.

Of course, there are consequences, but it is REALLY hard to navigate because she seems genuinely out of her mind. She is acting more like a child dealing with a disorder having a meltdown than a spoiled kid having a tantrum. Sometimes instead of yelling she just weeps, heartbreakingly. We can’t punish that, of course, but we also can’t pretend it’s OK. We try very hard not to let her get to this place. The addition of 4 p.m. apples with peanut butter has saved many meals. I have a “gateway food” strategy where I get her to eat something (honestly, sometimes this is a spoonful of Nutella) so she can gather herself, and then maybe a cheese stick, and then maybe she can sit and eat a meal. But this isn’t always practical. Sometimes we are in public, or at someone else’s house and cannot negotiate.

Also, this isn’t (always) about the food. If one of us just looks at her funny, she will say we are making fun of her (we never ever are) or being mean and storm out. Something similar happens at bedtime. If we get to sleep on time, she’s great, and we have an age-appropriate routine that leads to a good night’s sleep. But if we’re late or she’s tired, she gets wound up and the screaming and yelling start. Then she will add things like “Nobody understands me” or “I wish I’d never been born” or “Everyone hates me, I’ll never fit in.” Things that are not true. She will work herself up, and suddenly it is 9:15 p.m. and she is still sobbing pitifully about the horrors of the world, whereas if she had just closed her eyes at 8:00 p.m., the whole next day would be easier. We are all prisoners to her biorhythms. I don’t know what to do. I just wish she would really truly hear me say “if you eat this cheese stick, the world will seem more manageable” or “please close your eyes, you will feel better in the morning.”

—Tired and Hungry

Dear Tired and Hungry,

I strongly advise you, if you haven’t already, to speak to your child’s pediatrician about what is going on. Just because you’re able to identify eating and sleeping as being connected to her angst doesn’t mean that this is a problem that can be solved by simply adjusting how you approach those needs. It sounds like your daughter may be dealing with effects related to hypoglycemia, which occurs when a child’s blood sugar is too low. According to experts at Stanford Children’s Health, hypoglycemia can be its own condition, or it can be a sign of something else, such as Type 1 diabetes. And a lot of the signs she’s showing—like sudden tantrums or irritability—are symptoms of these conditions in children. It’s important that you understand why her behavior gets the way it does when she’s hungry, and to hear from a doctor about how to prevent this from continuing.

As far as the antics at bedtime, this could be connected to whatever is going on with your daughter when she’s hungry, but there may also be something else to contend with. The sort of language she’s using can be heard from people struggling with anxiety and depression; again, this could all be connected and traced to one issue, but I think it would be worth having her speak to a therapist or counselor about not just the feelings she’s having at night, but what she goes through when she’s hungry and becomes irrational. Surely these outbursts are taking a toll on her as well, and it would be helpful for her to talk to someone who can help her address those feelings and suggest coping mechanisms for dealing with them. Wishing your family lots of luck in getting to the bottom of this soon.

—Jamilah

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