Use Nutrition to End Tantrums
Crying, tantrums and even rebellion are various forms of self-expression children use to communicate. Skillfully handling these emotions is important, but also providing children with a balanced and nutritious diet and regular water intake will stabilize their blood sugar levels to minimize extreme emotional outbursts.
Abraham Maslow is the psychologist best known for the theory explaining how people fulfill their needs in priority. Known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs it looks like this:
- Physiological needs
- Emotional and physical safety needs
- Social connectedness needs
- Need for success
- Need for self- actualization and becoming the best version of ourselves
Our daily actions are therefore based on which level needs fulfilling at any specific point in time. And this applies to children too, but their limited ability to express a need can force them to behave and act in ways that may be challenging to parents if they don’t understand the root cause.
Food is a basic level 1 physiological need. When children are hungry, their blood sugar drops, and this may cause them to be less energetic. If this is prolonged, they start to feel uncomfortable and emotional (anxious, irritable, impatient) and may also experience some physical pain such as headaches–all of which they cannot express.
This then moves them to level 2: the need to feel emotionally and physically safe to overcome these physical discomforts. If their parents or caretakers do not help them express their need or are not patient while they try to express these needs, children may feel neglected, which then creates a need for level 3: to feel understood and connected.
Eventually, if left unchecked, an imbalanced and inconsistent diet will lead to a deficiency in certain nutrients, vitamins, and minerals, which may affect the child’s ability to perform and succeed in life (level 4 needs).
For example, a baby will give what we call early cues to express hunger. If the mother doesn’t recognise or respond to these cues, the baby will start to feel uncomfortable and will cry. Again if this cry isn’t attended to, its severity will increase. However, when a mother responds by attentively and lovingly breastfeeding her baby, she is helping her baby satisfy her biological need, and the emotional need for safety, in addition to the need for bonding and connectedness (levels 1, 2, 3).
This caring response to an infant’s cry is a crucial step in formulating the basis of a trusting and loving relationship. It provides what we call a secure attachment and builds resilience as babies learn how to cope with their emotions within a safe environment such as the mother’s hug. It simply communicates that you listen and understand, and also teaches your child to respond and listen to you too as they grow up.
Over time, children will continue to use crying, but also tantrums and even rebellion as various forms of self-expression that something is physically amiss. When children are hungry or thirsty and are unable to identify it, they won’t be able to express it rationally. They become unwell and their emotions overtake them. They do all they can but can’t get your attention and the help they need.
Understanding and then skilfully handling these emotions is important, but by providing your children with a balanced and nutritious diet and regular water intake will stabilise their blood sugar levels and minimise these extreme emotional outbursts to start with.
Here are easy tips to prevent nutrition-related tantrums:
Hydration is key and usually the most overlooked factor leading to emotional breakdowns. Ensure your child drinks enough water on daily basis. Let them choose their own flask to make it fun.
Have consistent mealtimes that allow children to know when food will be served yet flexible enough in case there are unexpected changes in their daily schedule or activity.
Make sure to have at least one meal per week (preferably per day) where the whole family sit together around the dining table to prepare or eat food together. Allow the time to be light with conversation and plenty of laughter. Imagine that it’s an outing with some of your friends instead of a tedious dinner with your toddler.
Check with your health coach on options for healthy snacking. My own favorites are fruits and veggies peeled and cut in small cubes in containers: Bananas, apples, tangerines, cucumbers. Make sure that children under the age of 3 are given snacks that don’t present a choking hazard.
Children who refuse a certain food item or category could be refusing the food’s format or timing:
- Introduce the same food at different times.
- Get creative and present it in different shapes. For example, cake recipes that include zucchini, carrots, bananas, apples.
Children need to feel independent (a level 4 need) and being in control of their physical environment:
- Increase accessibility to unbreakable cups and plates.
- Prepare food that they can reach for and eat on their own (cut-up fruits and veggies in plastic containers in the fridge)
- Buy safe utensils they can use with your supervision to help in food prep. Children love being involved in the kitchen and helping you (an added bonus!).
Children get excited or anxious when introduced to new people or put in environments outside their home (even if it’s a place they visited before). Always check in with them and listen to their concerns. They will be busy understanding and coping with the new stimuli and won’t take notice of their early hunger cues. So offer water and food regularly. In case you are out and there are no healthy options, just give them something to EAT.
Avoid grocery shopping with your children close to mealtimes or when your child is hungry. Whenever possible, also involve your child in the shopping list.
And of course, the most effective strategy is for you to become a role model yourself and that means enjoying a healthy nutritious lifestyle, and expressing your happiness around doing it.