Children who resist trying new foods range from the garden-variety, hesitant “picky eater” to extremely selective. Deciphering the intricacies of where a child lies on the eating spectrum takes our professional experience in feeding disorders and knowledge of the latest criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) for Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID).
But you won’t find in a professional manual the one common denominator that parents of every picky or selective eater tell you: It’s incredibly stressful for the entire family.
Feeding our children entails love, nurturing and responsibility. Parents’ anxiety about a child’s nutritional health increases if the child doesn’t appear to eat well. Imagine how these parents felt when news broke regarding the latest study in Pediatrics. Researchers found—in children ages 2 to almost 6—clear associations between selective eating and anxiety, depression and/or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
This particular study focuses on significant eating difficulties and not on more common picky eaters, but it’s important to consider how any child’s feeding challenges affect family stress levels and dynamics. Parents of selective eaters often say to me, “Oh, I wish I only had a picky eater!” But picky-eater parents often feel anxious as well.
As an SLP specializing in pediatric feeding, I know parents’ fears and family stress levels impede a child’s progress to becoming a more adventurous eater. Providing family-centered feeding treatment means supporting everyone in the household to the best of our abilities and within our scope of practice.
I asked a licensed clinical psychologist for tips to give parents caring for kids with eating challenges. Stephanie Smith specializes in helping parents manage the stresses of parenthood and serves on the advisory board for Produce for Kids. Use her three tips and encourage your clients’ parents and families to:
- Keep some perspective. Yes, eating is an essential part of life, but not the only part of life. Remind parents to notice and enjoy other shared activities with their child, even if mealtimes aren’t one of them: reading, crafts, bike rides, swimming, movies, games, puzzles.
- Find ways to enjoy mealtime. Suggest they take even a few minutes for themselves before or after a meal. Parents can alternate some alone time and do some deep breathing, enjoy a cup of tea or whatever helps them re-center. Bringing quiet, positive energy to the table or finding it again after a particularly stressful mealtime makes a big difference in the rest of the family’s day.
- Consider taking a bigger break—at least on occasion. We all love our kids, but parenting takes hard work, with mealtimes bringing particular stress. Whether this means hiring a babysitter, asking for help from family or friends, or trading off with their partner once in a while during typically “family” meals—parents need to give themselves time to relax and refuel. Assure them that taking a break or missing a meal with the family benefits everyone if it means a more relaxed state of mind for the next one.
When I offer these tips, parents tell me the advice may seem obvious, but when they get entrenched in daily mealtimes, they need help coming up with strategies like these. One mother said:
“When I’m dealing with breakfast, lunch and dinner—and it isn’t always easy with my kid—I need practical tips like these. I forget to give myself a break. I forget to stop and just enjoy my kid. I know it’s not helpful to get so wrapped up in the food (and how much he is and isn’t eating) and I lose perspective. The simplest change I’ve made is allowing myself a girl’s night once a week and I admit it: I time it so that I’m not here for family dinner. At first I felt guilty about it, but now I can see that it makes a difference for my child and my family if I get a break once a week—even at mealtimes.”
What tips do you give clients to help them stay energized and positive while their children learn to become more adventurous eaters? Please share them in the comments below.
Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, treats children, birth to teens, who have difficulty eating. She is the co-author of “Raising a Healthy, Happy Eater: A Parent’s Handbook—A Stage by Stage Guide to Setting Your Child on the Path to Adventurous Eating” (Oct. 2015), the author of “Happy Mealtimes with Happy Kids,” and the producer of the award-winning kids’ CD “Dancing in the Kitchen: Songs That Celebrate the Joy of Food!“