Guest post by Jo Cormack
As parents, if there is something bothering our child, it bothers us too. Their problem becomes our problem. It is really painful to see a child upset when we don’t know how to fix it. And when the thing that upsets them happens not once, not twice, but three or more times over the course of each and every day – that will have a serious impact on family life. This is how things are for many parents of picky eaters; for some families, each and every meal or snack time is a major source of stress for both parent and child.
The parents’ perspective
The urge to feed your child ‘successfully’ is a fundamental part of what it is to be human. It is a basic instinct without which the human race would not survive. So when problems crop up in this arena, it can be extremely distressing.
Many of the parents I see in my clinic talk about some really complex emotions in relation to their child’s eating, like guilt, self-loathing and self-blame. We work together to process some of these feelings because in order to move forward, it is important that parents are compassionate towards themselves. I often use the analogy of sporting talent: if your child was a star footballer, would you feel that this was all down to you? If they hated sports and preferred to read a book, would you feel that this was ‘your fault’?
Research points to eating challenges being a combination of nature and nurture; of genes and environment. We can’t take responsibility for the genes our kids get dealt. As for nurture, for me, when a client is at a point where they want to change how they parent in relation to food, my response is to congratulate them for being strong enough and big enough to take on new ideas and address the problem head-on. If you were approaching feeding in a way that you now feel was ‘wrong’, remember that you were doing the best that you could do with the information you had at the time.
Complex feelings about yourself in relation to your child’s eating are not the whole story. Many parents are just plain worried about their child’s health; worried that they are not getting the nutrients they need and that they may be losing weight. Tackle these concerns head-on. Get your child’s weight and growth assessed by a health professional. Go and see a registered dietitian and get a professional opinion about whether your child is short of any nutrients. See a speech and language specialist to ensure your child has no problems with chewing or swallowing.
If they are an option for you, these checks will make a huge difference to the levels of stress you are experiencing. It is so valuable to have a clear sense of whether you really need to be worried about your child’s health. For many parents, it will be a huge relief to find out that their child does not have any health issues. And if there is a problem, you will be on the right path for accessing appropriate medical support.
Stress and your child
If you are experiencing stress at mealtimes, you can be sure your child is too. Your emotions and their emotions meet and intersect, amplifying one another. We see this all the time with toddlers – if you are feeling tense and angry and your toddler has a tantrum, your reaction will intensify the tantrum. If you meet it with a laid-back and upbeat response, it will reduce it.
Children (especially young children) are programmed to attune to their parents’ emotions; they sense what we are feeling and even if they cannot verbalise what they are picking up, they react to it at an emotional level. Equally, we are tuned in to them, and their stress feeds our stress. If you can learn to regulate your emotions in response to your child’s eating, and to foster a calm and relaxed eating environment, this will have a big impact on how they feel too.
Stress leads to an urge to control
Scientists studying picky eating have found that one of the key factors that makes picky eating worse, is when parents feel a strong urge to control their child’s eating. If you are finding meals stressful because your child is not accepting the food you prepare, this can easily morph into a need to control. The more worried you are about your child’s eating, the more you may try to make them eat the food that is in front of them.
Equally, from the child’s point of view, sometimes they react to stress by controlling their eating even further. In an emotionally charged environment where they are experiencing pressure to eat, a refusal to eat may be the only way they can manage to feel safe. In other words, sometimes children control the things they have a small measure of power over, precisely because they feel out of control.
It is easy to see how mealtime stress can give rise to a need to control on the part of both the parent and the child. And this opposing need to control will contribute to further stress. Thus the vicious circle continues.
Moving away from stressful mealtimes
If you feel that meals are often stressful for you or your child, there is a lot you can do to make things better:
Understand your role in relation to feeding
It’s important to understand that it is your job to decide on the content and structure of meals and snacks, but it your child’s job to decide what to eat. This is what feeding specialist, Ellyn Satter, calls the Division of Responsibility and it is a powerful model to use when you are caring for a picky eater. If you are not already familiar with the work of Ellyn Satter, spend some time reading up about her ideas.
Be clear about whether you have genuine cause for concern
Get your child’s weight, growth and nutritional status checked. Worrying about something that may or may not actually be a problem is not a good use of energy.
3) Foster a positive food environment
Focus on making mealtimes relaxed and upbeat, rather than on ‘getting food down your child’. Enjoy family meals wherever possible and remember, a family meal is not all about aunts and uncles at Thanksgiving; it can be just you and your child. That is still a valuable communal eating experience.
4) Ask for help
There are some fantastic sources of support out there, ranging from the school nurse to feeding professionals who will be able to offer your child a thorough assessment. Sometimes it takes more courage to admit that you’re struggling than it does to continue with the status quo.
5) Embrace kindness
Just as you need to understand that your child is not being ‘naughty’ when they react negatively to unfamiliar or disliked foods, you also need to be compassionate towards yourself and focus on keeping a positive attitude and recognising what you are doing well, rather than dwelling on what isn’t working or hasn’t worked. Be kind to yourself and be kind to your child.
Jo Cormack (MA MBACP) is a therapist and feeding consultant specialising in helping parents prevent and solve picky eating. Based in the UK, she works with clients around the world via skype, as well as running her feeding practice at a busy clinic in Lincoln. Jo is a trained (and registered) counsellor and her expertise lies in the emotional, psychological and behavioural aspects of food and feeding. She knows that most parents are well aware of what they want their children to be eating; what Jo helps them with is how to help children enjoy a varied diet. War and Peas, Jo’s book for parents, was published in 2014. In October, 2016, Jo will be embarking upon a doctoral research project looking at maternal feeding practices. As well as offering feeding workshops and training opportunities to parents and professionals, Jo regularly writes about how to give children a positive relationship with food, both in her own blog and as a contributor to various feeding resources for parents.
Read more about Jo’s work and visit her blog at: http://www.emotionallyawarefeeding.com
You can follow Jo on social media:
Twitter – @Jo_Cormack