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Why Won't My Child Eat? Understanding the Picky Eater

Updated on March 22, 2016

My Child Refuses to Eat

Many parents struggle with a picky child who will only eat spaghetti Os and chicken nuggets. Certainly it is a concern that the child receive proper nutrition. Why won't he eat, and why does this problem seem to be getting worse and worse? Understanding the picky eater is vital to knowing how to manage a child who won't eat. This complex topic may be more readily understood broken into two parts: Why children are picky eaters and then what to do about it. This is part one.

The Healthy Child

This article (and its companion article) is meant to address picky eating in a healthy child. Some medical conditions can cause a child's appetite to be abnormally low. In addition, some children don't eat enough for whatever reason and become underweight or fail to grow at the proper rate. Children with certain disabilities, such as autism and others, also present a special set of problems that may not be adequately addressed here. Finally, a child with psychological or emotional struggles can also become a picky eater.

A physician should always be consulted when a parent is concerned about a child's eating. If there is a medical reason for it, then of course the pediatrician's expertise is needed to address that. If the child is healthy, the pediatrician will also be able to reassure the parent that her child is normal and healthy, just picky about the foods he eats. Ongoing communication and regular check-ups with the child's physician is always recommended to screen for any possible health issues.

The Picky Eater

We all know what it's like. Many children seem to latch on to two or three foods that they love, and pretty soon they're refusing to eat, or even try, anything else. Why does this happen? There are a few possible reasons, though every child is unique and individual temperament plays a role.

First, a child's sense of taste is quite a bit more sensitive than that of adults. This is thought to be a gift of evolution to protect the child. A little one with no knowledge of which foods are good to eat would be less likely to consume something bitter, which may be poisonous, if his sense of taste was extremely perceptive. As he matures and learns which foods are all right to eat, this sense wanes some to allow him to enjoy a wider range of food within the group of those that are safe to eat.

Similarly, a child's sense of smell and texture is also more acute the younger the child is. Studies show that a given food often tastes quite different to a child than an adult. Adults are less sensitive to acidity, for example, so a food like broccoli might taste too acidic for a child to enjoy.


A Child's Appetite Fluctuates

Children's hunger cycles tend to fluctuate more than those of adults. When your child says he's not hungry, chances are he's telling the truth. After the first year of life, when a child grows very rapidly, the rate of growth slows considerably. When he is in a period of rapid growth, he may be hungrier than when he is growing more slowly.

That and the fact that a young child hasn't had years of conditioning by regular mealtimes to create hunger and eating patterns may mean that his appetite will be more variable than what the parent might wish it would be.

Therefore, a little understanding is called for when a child is "picky". Often times they really don't like the taste of a wide spectrum of foods, and trying new foods can be overwhelming to their hyper-sensitive taste buds. Rest assured that, as the child grows, she will become more willing to try new foods and will come to enjoy a broader variety.

While it may be tempting to conclude that a child is spoiled or is being obstinate or defiant when she refuses food, the true reason may be something beyond her control. Giving her the benefit of the doubt is the best stance to take when it comes to fussy eating. The question remains, am I doing anything that might be making the problem worse?


Another Reason for Fussy Eating

Let us look at another possible reason for a child being resistant to eating. That is, when food becomes a power struggle.

Children, especially very small ones, have very little power over their lives. Adults decide when they go to bed and when they get up, where they go, what they watch on TV, who they see, when they bathe, and even what they wear.

This is the way it's supposed to be! A small child can't and shouldn't make many decisions regarding his daily life, particularly when very young. It is the job of parents to see to these things for him, only gradually letting him take these decisions over himself during the long period of growth and maturation from birth to about the age of 17 or 18 years.

Why Kids Are Fussy Eaters

Power Struggles and Eating

The child's job, on the other hand, is to become an autonomous human being. It is natural that a child will want to be more and more in control of her daily life as she matures. Empowering herself, and being encouraged in this, is an important interplay between parent and child for eighteen years. Your child simply wants to assert her right to choose, and this starts very early in life.

As soon as a child is verbal, in fact, and can follow a simple conversation, the power struggles often begin, and food is a major one. You want the child to eat green beans and poached salmon, he wants to eat fruit loops and hot dogs. The child very quickly picks up on the parent's almost desperate desire to "win" this debate, and it triggers his "I am my own person" inclination. The more the parent coaxes, pleads, threatens and pushes the child to eat what the parent wants him to eat, the more the child takes control of one of the few things he can control... what he puts in his mouth. It is not possible to force feed a healthy child, and he instinctively knows this. Therefore, it is one element of his daily life over which he has control.

Some of the picky eater syndrome, then, is often nothing to do with her taste at all, but with the power struggles that she naturally engages in with a parent attempting to impose their will on her budding sense of independence. It may begin as a taste sensitivity and evolve into the power struggle as she learns that this is something she can control.

Is Your Child A Picky Eater?

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Power Struggles are Counter-Productive

Power struggles are always something to avoid when raising a child. A power struggle sets up a "me against you" dynamic between parent and child, which is never good. In all aspects of raising a child, the parent should play the role of team member rather than opponent. In other words, the parent wants to be on the same team, aiming for the same goals as the child. A helper rather than an enforcer. The child should always feel that the parent wants to help him to grow and learn to be a strong person, not that they want him to simply obey whatever they dictate.

Since the child will ultimately control what goes into his own mouth anyway, it is futile to try and force the child to eat what he doesn't want to eat. The goal should be to encourage consumption of a wide variety of healthy foods as the child grows. If your child is deemed to be in good health by his pediatrician and is emotionally healthy, he will not starve himself. Worrying that he won't get enough nutrition is also often overblown. Studies show that a picky eater, if offered a wide choice of healthy foods, will consume the essential amounts of nutrients over the course of a week.


Understanding Why a Child Won't Eat

Knowing that there are valid reasons why a child is picky from a biological standpoint and resolving not to engage in power struggles around food are the first two steps in coping with your picky eater. There are many very effective strategies that can help increase your child's willingness to try new foods and encourage her to make healthy food choices. For a list of eight easy-to-use suggestions, read part two of this article, The Picky Eater: What To Do When Your Child Won't Eat.

*Katharine Sparrow has worked as a psychotherapist with children and families for many years, focusing on parenting issues and behavior problems.

© 2016 Katharine L Sparrow

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