How Can I Get My Preschooler To Stay Seated At The Dinner Table?

12/09/2011 02:33 pm ET | Updated Dec 30, 2011

Dear Susan,

I try to get our family to sit at the table for dinner but I can't get my preschooler to stay put for more than a few minutes. It seems like I spend the whole meal chasing her or telling her to sit still. Any advice for getting her to settle down during dinner?

She won't sit still!

Dear Mom,

Put yourself in your preschooler's shoes for a moment. She has a small stomach, which means it doesn't take a lot of food to satisfy her hunger. She's being asked to engage in table conversation that may not be terribly interesting to her. And her body is not suited to sitting still. She's meant to move around, play, dance, explore and engage with her world in a physical way. You may find it relaxing to come to a screeching halt and leisurely enjoy your meal while connecting with your family through dialogue, but it's an effort for your daughter.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't teach her, gradually, how to enjoy the pleasure of a family meal. But it's best if you meet her where she is, allowing her to take baby steps toward increasing her time at the table, while implementing some ideas that may make it easier:

  • Get her involved in the meal. Let her help you decorate the table, or serve the food. The more your daughter feels that she's a part of the dinner ritual, the greater the chance she'll stretch to stick around for at least part of the meal.

  • Feed her a healthy snack -- or a preschooler-friendly dinner -- before the family dinner. That way you won't be adding stress by obsessing about getting her to eat, which would contribute to her desire to leave the table. Put finger foods on her plate, cut up veggies, or small bites of whatever you're serving. Dinner will becomes less about making sure she's well-nourished, and more about enjoying each other's company.

  • Help her share one or two things about her day with the family so she's getting positive attention for staying engaged, rather than receiving a steady stream of negative attention for squirming and running off.

Try Saying:

"Would you like to show Daddy the new song you learned at school today? I'll bet he'd like to hear it!"

  • Allow her to have something to fiddle with at the table, like a stuffed animal that sits beside her and "tastes" some of her yummy food. Or give her have a pad and a few crayons so she can draw while she listens to the table conversation.

By establishing a happy association with dinnertime, you'll help your child move toward wanting to sit still for longer periods. Meanwhile, don't demand that your daughter sit for unreasonable stretches of time. Enjoy your time at dinner, instead of focusing on battling with your little girl. Bon appetit!

Yours in parenting support,

Parent Coach, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.