Gluten-Free Parenting – What’s Your Style?

Each time I go to the grocery store I invariably spot new gluten free products.  Last week it was chicken tenders.  The week before it was pop tarts.  The week before that it was microwaveable macaroni and cheese.  For the parent of a kiddo with gluten sensitivity, these finds are a double edged sword.  Yes they help to make your child feel more “normal”, but they are a far stretch from health food.  What’s a parent to do?

Recently I witnessed a bit of an online cat fight between two moms on a gluten free forum.  One mom was thrilled with some of the new products on the market place and the other mom was appalled.  Both moms heatedly made their cases with words like treats, let-them-be-a-kid, delicious  . . . . and junk food, poison, bad parenting.  While I didn’t join in the online banter, I found myself on both sides of the argument.

It is true that children on a gluten free diet (or any special diet for that matter) carry an emotional burden that others cannot understand.  It hurts to be the only kid who can’t eat the snack provided after a baseball game.  It’s difficult beyond belief for a child to have to refuse birthday cake.  It’s awkward to order a burger without a bun.  And it’s awful to be hungry and others are eating something you cannot.  The tears and frustration of a child who feels different from his peers tugs at a parent’s heart strings.  So when a new product comes on the market, well-meaning parents often succumb because they can finally offer their child something to ease their pain.  When parents see their child’s face light up at the sight of pop tart, something they haven’t indulged in since their diagnosis, it’s worth the astronomical cost of the gluten free goodie.  Refusing your child these indulgences can lead to anger, resentment and cheating.

But then the guilt sets in.  These products often contain refined grains and sugar, making them high in carbohydrates.  They can also be fat laden, causing the total calories to be higher than their gluten-containing counterparts.  And like with any child offered a diet full of sugar, refined grains and fat, they will develop a preference for these foods and shun healthier options.  Why would a child choose and apple when a pop tart is available?  The child may feel more normal indeed, but the normal American diet is not setting the bar very high.  Going gluten free may be addressing one health problem, but gluten free junk food may be creating another.

How people approach their diet often reflects their global approach to life, and this also applies to how parents feed their children.  If they are overly restrictive and never allow for treats or freedom of choice, chances are they are very controlling in other areas as well.  If a parent is overly permissive with food and doesn’t teach self-discipline, chances are that lack of discipline is an overarching problem in their parenting style, meaning the kids rule the house.  If parents over-identify with their children’s emotions regarding food, they may be thwarting the child’s emotional development in other areas.

Being neither a proponent of parenting with loosely goosey boundaries and emotional indulgence or an overly restrictive style with an authoritarian structure, I much prefer the middle path.  Parenting that promotes appropriate boundaries is the most effective.  This means allowing for treats and indulgences but not all the time, allowing the child to make choices (even ones you don’t always agree with) but not always getting their own way,  teaching self-discipline and self- respect by allowing the child to fail at times and feel the natural consequences of their actions.  When parents are struggling with their child’s diet, they should look more closely at their overall parenting style and make some adjustments to get on the middle path of better boundaries.

If you have found yourself being to the far left or the far right on the benefits or evils of the gluten free marketplace, you may need to examine your parenting style.  Try reading Boundaries with Kids by Cloud and Townsend for a general overview of implementing good boundaries with your little ones or How to Get Your Kid to Eat, but Not Too Much by Ellyn Satter, a gem that addresses the responsibilities of both child and parent with regard to eating.  Both you and your child will be glad that you did.

Mary Beth George, MEd, RD/LD, LPC

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