Food refusal can stem from a child being worried or fearful
Everyone needs to eat, it should be an enjoyable experience, but for so many children it is a time for worry and fear. Having a picky or anxious eater in the family is traumatic for everyone, the child themselves, siblings and parents.
Children often worry about food and this makes them reluctant to try new things. Children are not born worriers but can easily turn into them through traumatic experiences, or because they have heightened sensory issues that make the taste or texture of food difficult to eat.
It may be that a child has suffered a traumatic experience from eating food that becomes an experience that they don’t wish to repeat. An example of this is the fear of finding out that foods can give them an allergic reaction which is not a pleasant experience and may well put up barriers to trying new foods. Choking on new foods is scary and a child may easily feel that they would rather stick to easily-eaten pureed foods rather than choke again.
Some children have sensory issues that kick in and make it difficult to eat certain foods. These could be, for example, a smell of food that signals a don’t-go-there approach, or the texture of the food might be unexpected.
Parents, childcare workers, and children worry for different reasons. Adults worry that children are not eating, that they might be losing weight or not eating a balanced, nutritious diet. Children on the other hand worry about the mealtimes themselves. Mealtimes are complicated. Adults find them difficult to see from a child's perspective.
Children can find mealtimes stressful. They worry about what food will be offered - will they like it, is it what they are used to? The worry about how the food will be offered and who will feed it to them? There is often worry about the look and feel of food. They fear they are not ready to try anything new. They worry they might have a bad experience.
Mealtimes can turn into an event that both parents and children dread - a battleground - far from the relaxed events they could be.
Worry and frustration that a child is not eating will take over resulting in pressure being put on the child to eat. Examples of this pressure are things like: finish your plate, see how your sister has eaten her dinner, there will be no story at bedtime, or no TV, or eat a few bites and you can have a little bit of video time, no food and you can go to bed hungry.
Showcasing to other children or threatening to take away privileges is a way of shaming a child - although this is never the intent It feels like they are disappointing their parents. It affects their self-confidence, especially when they already lack the confidence to eat the food that is in front of them.
Children must be able to eat because they want to, not because parents are asking them to eat.
Children are quite able to determine their own energy intake. It is too easy for parents to take over the role of deciding how much food a child needs. Parents should ask questions instead: Why aren’t you eating the food offered to them? Is there something wrong? What do you like to eat? What’s worrying you?
It is easy to put pressure on children in ways that are not obvious or intended. Simply feeding children when they are quite able to feed themselves, or putting too much food on a child’s plate can cause problems. So can adding new foods to a food that the child likes, eg hidden veggies.
Children need to be able to take time to eat, and to determine how much of the meal they want to eat. Being fed takes this away from them. Having their plate served with too much food can be overwhelming.
Children want to please their parents. And they want to eat. However there are so many ways that adults put pressure onto children, often without meaning to.
Not only must parents not put their children under pressure, they must also maintain their child’s trust. The child’s trust in the parent feeding them must be absolute. They need to know that the food they are being given is what they are expecting.
If adults push children to eat more, if they bribe, coerce and force a child to eat, then the child will become a food resistor. Over time a vicious cycle develops.
Parents are always doing their very best for their children, and picky eaters can make family life very tough, Hopefully by being a little bit aware that your child may well be refusing food due to a worry or a fear will enable you to move forward and seek professional help if needed. There are experts available to help. You are not alone.