Family meals are one of the key times for nurturing, communicating, and—let’s face it—arguing. “With families on lockdown due to 2019 coronavirus disease, there’s a whole new level of joy and stress to getting in three square meals a day,” says Andrea D. Vazzana, PhD, clinical assistant professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone and a member of its Child Study Center. “And if meals were already a battleground for you and your child, you may feel overwhelmed.”
Negotiating what and how much to eat at each meal can be a highly stressful experience that impacts the whole family system. “While witnessing your child struggle with disordered eating patterns can be exhausting, it is also an opportunity for you to give your child the support that they need,” says Michelle R. Miller, PsyD, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
Together with the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s WonderLab, Dr. Vazzana and Dr. Miller share their perspective and offer advice for parents to help encourage healthy eating habits in children during COVID-19.
Use the Off the CUFF Technique
Parents can likely benefit by using Off the CUFF, a technique created by Nancy Zucker, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University. “Off the CUFF is a way of parenting, rather than a specific treatment,” Dr. Miller says.
The “C” stands for clear, and refers to parents being direct and specific in their requests. “For example, instead of saying, ‘I want you to eat more,’ a more clear response would be, ‘You need to eat all of the pasta on your plate within 30 minutes,’” Dr. Miller says.
The “U” stands for undisturbed, which refers to appearing calm and confident in the presence of your child. “While it can be overwhelming to see your child struggle, appearing undisturbed will make it more likely that your child will follow through with your requests while feeling calmer themselves,” Dr. Miller says.
The first “F” stands for firm, and refers to a way to convey confidence. For example, you’ve given your clear request in a calm and confident manner, but now your child starts to push back. There might be tears and maybe even threats.
It can be tempting to give into your child. “Maybe giving in this one time won’t hurt? Only, we all know that it will,” Dr. Vazzana says. “It teaches your child that with enough pleading, negotiating, and arguing, you’ll back down. In fact, each time you back down, it makes it more likely that the same scenario will occur next time.”
Instead, you should calmly and confidently stand your ground and maintain that even though this meal might be tough, it still needs to get finished. “Being firm might also mean letting your child know what else might be delayed as a result of mealtime dawdling or outbursts,” Dr. Vazzana says. “Once you set up a reasonable consequence, be sure to follow through. That’s part of the difference between making an idle threat and being firm. When feasible, remember to point out what fun activities might be enjoyed after the meal’s finished as well.”
And fun is what the second “F” stands for. Dr. Vazzana says, “I hear you say, ‘This is serious, exhausting stuff, and my child—my whole family—is suffering. This is no time for fun!’ And you’re right, this is serious, and it can be scary and even life-threatening. All of that is true, and makes it that much more important to find the fun and the funny wherever it exists.”
“Meals can become so intense that it’s that much more necessary to embrace levity—breaking intensity’s fervor with laughter,” Dr. Vazzana says. A chuckle over something silly, over our own foibles, over a funny memory can take you and your child out of a tense moment and replace it with a moment of warmth and togetherness.
“Those moments will help you and your family get through these difficult times,” Dr. Vazzana says. “We wish you limerick-making contests, tongue twisters, and puns galore. And with each corny joke, another bite of corn.”
More Resources for Parents
If you believe your child may have an eating disorder, it is important to seek support with a healthcare provider who has expertise in treating eating disorders. Experts at the Child Study Center’s Eating Disorders Service are dedicated to the prevention, assessment, and treatment of eating disorders through education, research, and therapy.
Dr. Vazzana and Dr. Miller also recommend the following resources for parents:
- Duke Center for Eating Disorders: Off the CUFF: A Parent Skills Book for the Management of Disordered Eating, by Dr. Nancy Zucker
- National Eating Disorders Association: Helpline