Is your child a picky eater? Does her or his eating create tension in your home? What was your experience in being fed growing up? Were your parents overly involved?
These are a few questions to consider if you are concerned with your child’s eating habits. Donna Fish, a licensed clinical social worker, offers parents and kids guidance in how to take the fight out of food.
I met Ms. Fish at her workshop that focused on learning how to prevent and solve childhood and teen eating problems. She advised that two questions to ask up front are: What is the problem? And whose problem is it?
These two questions are critical to understanding whether your child’s eating is problematic from a medical/developmental perspective.
If a medical problem has been ruled out, the child is not nutritionally compromised and there are no body image issues the child is experiencing, then there needs to be some better understanding about how their picky eating is affecting dynamics in the family. For example, does it lead to parents frequently fighting or to tension on vacations?
Basic parent education on nutrition and development go a long way in helping a parent to understand that their child is on a normal growth curve and that how they eat from a nutritional perspective is nothing to be worried about. Consulting with your pediatrician or finding a nutritionist is a good place to begin.
If education doesn’t do the trick, then it is helpful to understand a bit more about whose problem it is. This necessitates an understanding about the meaning of food in the family.
In many cultures food and feeding represent love, nurturing and bonding. If a child’s picky eating denies a parent a sense of nurturing it can lead to a battle of wills. In that case, a child quickly learns how their eating represents an ability to take control, which can lead to power struggles in the family.
For parents, understanding their own experiences eating when growing up can offer them some insight. For example, if their parents were overly involved with their eating it might suggest some difficulty trusting your own body signals regarding when you’re hungry or full and satiated.
If a parent makes this historical connection, it may help them to better understand the value in allowing their child to have more autonomy with eating. For example, they can be allowed to control their own meal portions. For a toddler that might mean putting finger foods on their tray so they can help themselves as opposed to being spoon fed.
In her work with children who are struggling with eating, Fish advises “You are the expert on your body. You need to be the best body detective possible. It’s your job, not your parents’ job.” This is important work that helps the child to separate emotions from feelings of fullness and comfort.
Ms. Fish sees “all food as good,” as having some value, and talks to kids about nutrition in a way that generates interest and curiosity.
Still, if your child appears to continually make poor choices, it is important that you set reasonable limits. As Fish puts it, “Parents think their job is to protect their child from disappointment, anxiety and hurt,” but it is okay for children to experience the disappointment of your setting limits on occasion. It’s just another of the many areas where parents can help their kids learn a valuable life lesson.
To learn more about Donna Fish, visit www.donnafish.com. Take the Fight Out of Food can be found on Amazon.
Andrew Malekoff is the executive director of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, which provides comprehensive mental health services for children from birth through 24 and their families. To find out more, visit www.northshorechildguidance.org or call 516-626-1971.