Strategies for Sibling Conflict at Mealtime
There are many struggles when it comes to sibling battles, but the most challenging is when it occurs at the dinner table. School-age children are testing limits, toddlers are learning how to express their feelings and babies are imitating their brothers and sisters (sometimes to our dismay!). Here are a few strategies to use when conflict occurs at mealtime.
Encourage Problem Solving: Children’s brains need fuel when they are developing at such a rapid rate. So when kids get hungry, their social skills (following directions, obeying family rules, waiting patiently) decline quickly. Help them figure out solutions to manage their hunger so they can make better choices in the future.
- “I know you are hungry. I am too. I’m working hard to get dinner ready, do you want to help so we can eat sooner?”
- “I see you didn’t have time to eat your celery sticks at lunch. Do you want to much on them while I finish preparing dinner?”
Provide Mealtime Space: Kids instinctively fidget when they get hangry. If a sibling is in their space, they can get the brunt of it. To avoid these normal (but frustrating) behaviors, try the following:
- To limit siblings from poking, touching or hitting at mealtime, I keep them a shoulder width away from each other by using the ezpz Happy Mat. Because of the mat’s size (it is a silicone plate + placemat in one) it naturally provides them their own space at the table. Providing this extra space can keep conflict to a minimum.
- A bonus of using the Happy Mat is the area around the plate, where you can write your kiddo’s name or “I love you” or jot down a friendly mealtime reminder (e.g., Don’t hit your brother). This strategy will help keep your kiddo focused on the meal rather than what their siblings are doing. Note - dry erase markers and food safe markers work best on all ezpz products.
Pre-Feeding Activities: Introducing sensory stimulating activities before mealtime has always been a strategy of mine, especially with siblings. Not only does it help them get the wiggles out (before we ask them to sit for 20 minutes to eat), it gives them time to connect through play, which can decrease conflict. Here are some ideas to try:
- Kids Yoga: I give handouts to all my feeding therapy clients with yoga stretches for kids. Children love showing off their cat, cow, dog, tree and giraffe poses before eating! It’s such a fun sensory activity!
- Washing Their Hands: Warm water can calm down their sensory system and make them more relaxed for mealtime. I worked with twins that washed their hands and face before eating because they said, “It gives me the energy to chew!”
- Dance Party: Dancing is a perfect movement activity, especially for children with sensory challenges. Have each child pick out a song to sing and dance to. Note – I make sure they choose different songs because I can only handle Baby Shark one time!
Discuss Complex Feelings: Once children understand basic feelings (mad, happy, sad) you can expand their learning by labeling more complex feelings like frustration or jealously, which are common themes at mealtime.
- “I know you feel frustrated that dinner is taking so long, and that’s why you pushed your sister. But now she feels sad. Let’s see if she is okay, and then I can finish cooking.”
- “I know you are feeling jealous that your brother got the bigger piece of pepperoni pizza. But now you can choose the larger piece of the cheese pizza instead.”
Teaching strategies for conflict at mealtime will not only help your children get along at home, but will be very beneficial for play date struggles or school cafeteria scuffles. What are some of your tips for resolving sibling battles at meals? #ezpzfun
Dawn Winkelmann (M.S, CCC-SLP) is ezpz’s Pediatric Speech-Language Pathologist and Feeding Specialist. She has 28 years of experience teaching parents and medical professionals how to start babies on solids safely and encourage toddlers to overcome picky eating tendencies. In addition, “Ms. Dawn” is the designer of our award-winning feeding products.