10/07/2014 03:01 pm ET Updated Dec 07, 2014

My Child Can't Sit Still at the Dinner Table!

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I spend every night at dinnertime trying to get my 4-year-old daughter to behave herself. I could understand if she was a toddler, but now she's old enough that she should be able to sit with us for 20 minutes. I usually end up mad and telling her to go to her room. How can I get her to behave so we can have dinner as a family?

Whenever we deliver a statement about our child that begins with "She should be able to..." we head toward trouble.

Every child is unique. While we can certainly create some general expectations about what a child will be capable of at any particular developmental stage, each of us lands on Planet Earth with our own mix of temperament, passions and abilities. Some children emerge from the womb with a quiet and peaceful nature. Others arrive kicking and screaming -- and never stop!

Deciding what your child should be able to do is a recipe for disaster. Instead, let's look at who she is, and figure out what she is genuinely capable of when it comes to sitting quietly for family meals. Using the captain of the ship analogy that is so fundamental to the parenting ideas I teach, think of this as recognizing what each member of your crew is best suited for, rather than demanding that the engineer to be in charge of meal preparation, or insisting that the navigator teach salsa dancing.

Some preschoolers easily sit politely at the table for 20 minutes or more. They enjoy being with their family, and happily take part in conversation for long stretches of time.

But other kids are born on the move. Their bodies are constantly in motion; sitting for even five minutes feels like torture.

Demanding that your daughter rein in her energetic nature is only going to set you up for a series of power struggles. Instead, work with who she is, and how she is wired. Kids who are always on the go like to climb, move and engage physically with the world. It is much harder for them to throw on the brakes and quiet down their little bodies. Scolding her for being active or fidgety will only leave her feeling that there's something wrong with her; not a good direction to take.

So, let's instead look at building on success. How long can your daughter sit comfortably at dinner? Five minutes? Go with that. Make sure that the dinner table feels inviting, rather than constricting or tense. Have conversation that feels inclusive, rather than requiring her to participate in grown up discussions. Allow her to share a funny story or something about her day; many little ones do better when they get to be the center of attention now and then. Provide her with paper and crayons so she can occupy herself while she listens to the table conversation. Give her something to fiddle with at the table, like a little stuffed animal that sits beside her and "tastes" some of her dinner.

Most children would rather learn -- often through play -- than eat. It doesn't take much food, or time, to fill a 4-year-old's belly. So if you want her to be more involved in what happens at the dinner table, try to make it more welcoming.

And if she does need to get up to wiggle and shake, don't try to control her. In time, she will mature and no doubt become quite capable of lingering at the table. Meanwhile, don't spoil the association for her between family meals and sweet time to connect. Make it a positive and welcoming place to be nourished with food, and the company of those we love.

Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.

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