Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Why Not Withhold Children's Food As Discipline?

I’ve had a lot to say recently about suggestions that children’s food supply should be contingent on their behavior. Many parents may feel a little uneasy about this topic, because most of us have used dessert as a negotiable item in efforts to get children to stop dawdling or to use reasonable table manners. Of course, when I refer to withholding food as a way to discipline children,I’m not just talking about whether they get a piece of lemon meringue pie tonight or not. I’m talking about reducing the available food to a small number of items and a smaller number of calories than the child usually consumes, with normal types and amounts of food given only if the child complies with parents’ wishes, and continuing that regimen for weeks or months. The effects of this kind of food withholding come on gradually but are very real.

If a child misses some food on one day-- as a punishment or because of a tummy-ache-- he or she generally makes up for it the next day. There’s no real need for food, or food intake, to be “balanced” over a 24-hour period, and there’s no long-term effect if it isn’t.

But a long period of time with less food than normal, as well as fewer nutrients than normal, is a different matter. This condition has been referred to as semi-starvation by some nutritionists. The starving person does not die within a week, as would be the case if all food and liquids were withheld, but gradually experiences both physical and mental effects.

Understanding the effects of gradual starvation is a matter that requires some tricky research approaches. Although all too many people in the real world are suffering from being underfed, most of them have other health problems-- contagious and chronic diseases, parasites, untreated injuries--- all of which may affect them physically and mentally in ways that are easily confused with the effects of lack of food. There are few circumstances in which experimental work can be carried out on the impact of semi-starvation; only adult volunteers could be used in this kind of investigation. The most famous experimental investigation of semi-starvation took place toward the end of World War II and used volunteers who were conscientious objectors to the war (Keys, A., et al. [1950] The biology of human starvation. University of Minnesota Press; Kalm, L.M., & Semba, R.D. [2005]. They starved that others be better fed: Remembering Ancel Keys and the Minnesota experiment. Journal of Nutrition, Vol. 135, pp. 1347-1352). These healthy young volunteers agreed to be subjected to months of calorie restriction and continuing physical exercise. They became emaciated, irritable, apprehensive, and moody, and were preoccupied with food; some ended up eating garbage or items like raw rutabagas, even though they were strongly committed to the program in terms of what its data could do to help people who were involuntarily starving in war zones. Not only were their bodies affected in complex ways beyond simple weight loss, but personality changes appeared.

Of course no experimental work of this kind would be done on children. But there is some related information which was secretly collected in the Warsaw ghetto, again during World War II. A lecture by Myron Winick on this sad topic can be found at www.columbia.edu/cu/epic/winick_lecture_2005.pdf. Winick reports the studies of what was called “hunger disease” in Jewish children confined and semi-starved in a section of Warsaw. Obviously, weight loss and growth failure resulted from their experience, but there were other effects as well. Low blood pressure and other cardiovascular effects were a consequence of slow starvation, as were cataracts (changes in the lens of the eye that prevent light from entering). The children reported being always cold.

It’s well known that infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, if subjected to poor nutrition for a period of time, are likely to be badly affected. Kwashiorkor, a nutritional deficiency disease resulting from lack of protein, causes slowing of brain development, among other things. Malnourished young children are reduced in stature and brain size.

These physical effects are all excellent reasons for avoiding the use of serious, long-term food withholding as a technique for disciplining children. But let’s consider the mental and personality effects in addition. Parents who consider using these techniques are usually concerned with what they consider to be serious behavioral problems. They may be dealing with an emotionally disturbed child whose irritability, aggressiveness, or tantrum behavior are trying or even frightening. They may begin a regimen that makes a normal amount of food dependent on behaving well-- but if the child is really not able to improve, or if other aspects of the environment reward the behavior, semi-starvation may go on for many weeks. Then what can we expect to happen? Looking at the World War II study of adult volunteers, we see that characteristically, this food regimen made them more irritable, apprehensive, and moody. If this effect generalizes to children-- and we might plausibly predict that the effect would actually be greater in children than in adults-- the impact of a period of reduced food intake would be to worsen the undesirable behavior that triggered this form of discipline to begin with.

Making a normal diet depend on a child’s behavior may cause behavior to get worse over time, and is certainly potentially dangerous from the physical viewpoint. But this doesn’t mean that negotiating behavior with the help of that slice of pie is necessarily a bad idea, if it seems to work in your family. If you’re worried about using that method too much, make sure that the pie-less child can have seconds on the main course if still hungry, and you can be sure that nobody is semi-starving.

7 comments:

  1. Withholding ANY meal from a child as punishment is WRONG! This teaches a child to NOT trust their parent(s) and lessens their feeling of security. Many state departments of family services look upon meal withholding at any time as child abuse. What are people thinking?! What will the child remember, the behavior that led to a withheld meal, or being sent to bed with no dinner or sent to school without breakfast? They will remember the hurt and anger they felt when they were treated as something less than human.

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    1. My mother didn't exactly withhold food. But she did make me wait until she was good and ready to serve dinner, and I think she enjoyed my hunger. I thought that even then. If she thought that would teach me self-control, she was mistaken. I grew up fat and not trusting her. I eventually lost the weight but I can still remember the powerlessness I felt fifty-two years later.

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  2. Withholding ANY meal from a child as punishment is WRONG! This teaches a child to NOT trust their parent(s) and lessens their feeling of security. Many state departments of family services look upon meal withholding at any time as child abuse. What are people thinking?! What will the child remember, the behavior that led to a withheld meal, or being sent to bed with no dinner or sent to school without breakfast? They will remember the hurt and anger they felt when they were treated as something less than human.

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  3. Children need to learn boundaries, and what are they going to remember, as said a few comments ago? Are they going to remember the lesson or the punishment? If the punishment is good enough to stick, painful enough to remember or the child is hungry enough to be forced to behave, it's success. Period. I don't care if the kid is happy, just behaving.

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  4. Isn't the point that the child learns the lesson-- not that pain was required to accomplish this? You may have noticed that lots of children experience pain for various reasons, go hungry, or are terrified, but they do not necessarily "behave" as well-cared-for children do.

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  5. If children were not dependent on their parents for nourishment then withholding food might be ok. But, they ARE dependent. Which means withholding food is a terror tactic in which the parent is communicating to the child "I control your food source and if you do not obey I may starve you (same as kill you?)." If your child asks for bread what man amongst you will give him a stone? Apparently, a lot of you! Feed your children. Discipline with love, not terror.

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    1. i agree 100%....it is cruel to deprive someone of food....to go through the night on an empty stomach is painful...it is damaging in so many ways....

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