I prefer selective eating to describe what parents call “picky eating” because the latter suggests the child is demonstrating poor behavior that must be corrected. It’s more in keeping with my concept of Parental Intelligence to look at each child’s eating habits and figure out what’s on their minds when they choose to eat the way they do.
This not only eliminates unnecessary arguments, it puts the behavior on a different plane. It says the child is seeking some sort of comfort or security when they eat and they’ve found their way to express that. With that in mind, pushing too hard to try new foods, reprimanding the child to eat in certain ways, insisting that the child finish a meal completely, or any other rule that the child can’t follow stops making sense when we don’t even know why the child persists on eating what they eat and the way they eat it.
For example, in a research study of children who were intensely selective about their eating such that they were frequently unable to eat outside the home, it was suggested that this may be linked to social anxiety. In that extreme situation, the eating style was an indicator of other problems.
The research also indicated that other children were not to be considered willful or difficult but rather that these children had a particular sensitivity to taste, texture and visual stimuli that entered into their eating world. External eating was thus an internal mental experience.
What Should Parents Do?
1. Consider the eating habit is something to understand, not battle or punish.
2. Some children will grow out of their particular ways of eating and others won’t so parents need to discover in the latter situation when there are more underlying problems being depicted by the way their child eats than is obvious at first.
3. Be a good role model for trying different foods and not making a fuss about who eats what. This generally calm attitude takes the pressure off everyone.
4. Make it your job to provide healthy food and the child’s job to eat what they will. Then family meals are time to share time and conversation together not battlegrounds.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Eating patterns sometimes are ways of reducing anxiety. Children with OCD may separate the food on their plates so foods don’t touch one another. They may not want to eat leftovers or carefully check expiration dates because they fear germs. These irrational fears need to be taken seriously. Your child may know intellectually their fears aren’t founded, but emotionally they seem very real and to counter them raises anxiety exponentially.
This means your child needs professional help with psychotherapy and perhaps medication and as parents you can be guided by the professional as to how to help your particular child.
Behavior Has Meaning is the Message
The ultimate message is that the eating pattern is a routine to stem anxiety not to be stubborn or to create upsetting times for others. The child is not trying to upset you. He or she is experiencing inner turmoil that is being expressed through their eating patterns. The eating behavior is a communication of an inner world in distress. With this in mind, getting to know more about your child’s thoughts and feelings is more important than what they choose to eat as long as they are in a healthy weight range.
Laurie Hollman, Ph.D. is a psychoanalyst with an upcoming book, Unlocking Parental Intelligence: Finding Meaning in Your Child’s Behavior, that will be released Oct. 13. Pre-orders from Amazon can be made currently at a discount.