Dear David Coleman: My 11-year-old daughter is throwing tantrums and has issues with food

By | May 25, 2020

Q I am at my wits’ end with my 11-year-old daughter. She’s become so difficult with food. She will not eat but roars crying when she’s hungry. Literally, all she will eat is Coco Pops, chicken goujons and plain pasta. Today was the second day she came in from playing and started roaring “I don’t know, I don’t know” and then it’s “I’m starving, I’m starving” and threw herself on the kitchen floor in full tantrum. I have sent her to bed hungry because her tantrum upset my six-year-old. Please help.

David replies: When you describe your daughter as having become “so difficult with food”, I wonder if that means she hasn’t always been so fussy or restricted in what she chooses to eat? If this does represent a change, is it a change that has developed since the Covid-19 pandemic has started and we have faced so many other, potentially anxiety-provoking changes?

Often times, when children are faced with situations in which they feel out of control (like now with the changes brought about by the coronavirus), they can instinctively and subconsciously try to exert control in an area where they have the capacity to do so. Typically, children can control what goes into their bodies and what comes out.

So, sometimes, we see that they might restrict what they eat, or try to eat more, or they might develop problems with wetting or soiling that were never there before. This may be what is going on for your daughter, trying to control her eating as a subconscious way of dealing with uncertainty. It is not that she is not eating at all, she just has a very limited range of foods, and may end up in conflict with you if you expect her to eat other foods.

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I don’t think it will help to try to deal with your daughter’s eating in a behavioural way (for example, sending her to bed without food unless she eats whatever has been offered for dinner, or trying to force or cajole her into eating something she doesn’t want to eat).

I think it will help more for you to talk to your daughter about how much change there has been in your family’s life recently, allowing her to express any fears she has. 

When she says “I don’t know, I don’t know”, I think she may be expressing the truth that she doesn’t even know why it feels so important to her to only eat such limited foods. You can help her understand that this is probably temporary and may be linked to her stress generally.

Then, when it comes to food and eating, take the pressure off her (and yourself) and allow her to eat the things she feels comfortable eating. She is old enough that she can take responsibility for preparing all of the food she likes, making pasta or baking the goujons.

So, if it is too much stress for you to be cooking different dinners, then let her take on that task for her own food (with your supervisory eye in the background).

You may find, that with the pressure taken off her, she actually becomes a little more open to trying other food. But even if not, at least food is not a point of conflict. You can check with a dietitian or doctor, too, such that any nutrient deficiency can be supplemented with vitamins or other supplements.

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