#56 - Is It My Fault My Child is a Fussy Eater?Jan 21, 2024
“If they’re hungry enough they’ll eat”
“You’re the parent, you create picky eaters”
“There were no options when I was a kid or with me. Either eat or you don’t”
“You just need to discipline them more”
Cue the eye roll…..
As the parent of a child with feeding challenges, you’ve likely heard some kind of variation of all of these before. I’ve heard them again and again from my clients. And these are actually quotes taken directly from Facebook mom groups I’m part of.
Statements like these have you wondering…is it my fault that my child is a picky eater?
In fact, when I was doing 1-on-1 feeding evaluations, almost every single evaluation I completed start with a parent telling me “it’s probably my fault because…”
“Because I pressured them to eat when they were little”
“Because I didn’t pressure them enough”
“Because I like to be clean”
The reasons are endless. But the common theme is that almost all my parents were putting the entire blame on themselves for their child’s eating habits. And it was tearing them apart.
And my guess is that you’re probably feeling the same way. That the fact that your child is struggling to eat is entirely on your shoulders.
This week, I’m here to tell you - that most of the time that’s not the case. Wooo, you can let out that breath you’ve been holding now.
Now, I will say, a lot of this episode is based on my personal opinion based on my personal experiences. I’ll definitely be sharing some of the research with you, but the research is limited and a little all over the place - because in studies you can’t really take out the parenting that’s happened in the past and separate it from the other reasons. All of our past experiences shape who we are.
OK, so why don’t I believe that it’s always a parent’s fault that a child struggles to eat.
Well…first of all, there’s a plethora of reasons that a child might struggle to eat. Let’s explore a few:
- Sensory processing: of course you knew I would start with this one. Children with sensory differences often struggle with eating. Sensory challenges can make eating certain textures, getting dirty, or accepting food based on the look difficult. It can also cause challenges with sitting at the table, holding utensils, and more. Now this can be a podcast episode all of its own (checked out episode #41 - Sensory Food Aversions), but I’m not going to delve into this one too much right now. But we all have sensory preferences that create different feelings around food.
- Oral motor challenges: some children struggle with the coordination, strength, or endurance of the muscles in their mouth. This can cause challenges with chewing, getting food to the teeth, clearing food from the mouth, and more. Often children with oral motor challenges shy away from certain textures, drop food from their mouth, or swallow food whole.
- Aspiration or safety concerns: Other children have challenges with coordinating the swallowing of food, and instead of going to the belly, it heads in other directions. These children can begin to refuse to eat certain foods, because it doesn’t feel good when it goes down the wrong way. We also will often see coughing, choking, watery eyes, chest congestion, or wet voices after eating. If this is the case with your child - talk to your medical provider ASAP.
- Medical concerns: GI issues, allergies, neurological changes, psychological diagnoses, anatomical issues - there are SO many medical reasons that can be a hidden cause of eating challenges. And these DO get missed. I once completed an evaluation with a family who came in because their child was throwing up in the middle of the night after eating, and they were told it was a behavioral issue. You can bet I sent them back to the GI, and when they spoke to the GI about their concerns, they found an undiagnosed issue that completely changed the course of their eating journey.
Now, we’re just touching the tip of the iceberg here. There’s so much more than we could discuss about the hearts, the lungs, past hospitalization - like NICU admissions, that can drastically change the course of a child’s eating. I did create a super quick free handout for you because I know you’ll likely want to go back and remember all of these different causes. So you can grab that here, or by clicking the image below. But the point I really want to get across is that there are SO many different things that can affect a child’s eating - it’s not all about parenting.
And yet, everyone is so quick to blame the parents. Before we jump to those conclusions it’s essential that we first rule out any of these other causes.
If you’ve been with me a while you know I personally am a big fan of the SOS Approach to Feeding, which was developed by Dr. Kay Toomey, a psychologist.
She is a firm believer that the majority of eating challenges are not caused by parenting. In her course for feeding therapists, she shares that per her research review only about 5-10% of eating challenges are related to parenting styles. As said by Dr. Toomey:
“My 30 years of clinical experience in assessing and treating Feeding Disorders has taught me that feeding problems are not all in children’s heads. It’s all in their bodies. When a child doesn’t eat, we need to look for the skill deficits, developmental challenges and physical problems underlying this child’s difficulty with eating or feeding well. We should not be blaming parents or saying that a child has a behavioral feeding problem.”
I’ve personally seen the same when working with families. So much of the time theres something going on within their body that is making eating a struggle. Dr. Toomey further goes on in her programs to explain that the majority of the time, the way that a parent is acting - by pressuring, or not offering new foods, etc. is in response to their child’s eating challenges. She states that in other studies, when the child’s eating improved, so did the parent’s perspective and attitude around eating.
Now, is this to say that how parents offer food and respond to their child doesn’t matter? Absolutely not.
There are a variety of studies that found parenting practices can either promote or hinder their child’s progress at the table.
For example, a new study was published in 2020 that completed a systematic review of 80 studies. FYI - systematic reviews are considered one of the higher forms of research. In this review they found that behaviors that tended to increase eating challenges included authoritarian parenting, rewards for eating, and pressuring your child to eat. Behaviors that decreased the likelihood of eating challenges included family meals, responsive parents, and involving the child in the preparation of food.
How we handle your child’s eating challenges does matter. What we do as therapists and parents does matter in shaping their future interactions with foods.
So, while it’s likely not your fault that your child is a fussy or picky eater, how you handle it from here is extremely important in shaping your child’s relationship with food.
Adopting positive practices that help your child feel confident and comfortable at the table can help them create lifelong positive relationships with food.
And I can help you get started on that right now. I’m currently running my FREE 3-day Camp Food Explorers challenge, where I teach you how to choose a food that actually works for your child’s body, introduce it in a fun and positive way, and then focus on connecting with your child at the table.
It’s SO easy when you join, you get a really quick video to your email for 3 days with that day’s focus, and even if you don’t have time to watch the video, there’s a little “too long didn’t read” section where you can quickly discover what to focus on.
Parents who have completed this challenge were delighted to find that their child was actually discussing new foods with them, tasting it, and even found a new food for them to enjoy.
Here’s what one parent had to say about it:
"The camp videos have been so helpful! I need to join the membership! My daughter does feeding therapy for sensory issues, but the therapists always focus on her while working with her (as they should!) but with your videos - I felt seen as a parent and as if you were actually talking to us moms dealing with this and trying to work with our kids to introduce new foods"
So don’t miss it! Head over to www.drsamgoldman.com/campfoodexplorers to join us RIGHT NOW and finally start connecting with your child at the table again.
I can’t wait to see you in the challenge!
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