Attacking an individual at the core of their self worth can have devastating consequences. My seven year old daughter came to me upset a short time ago and told me the group of girls she considers her friends had called her “mean” and “ugly”. I’m horribly biased, as her mother, but if you met my daughter, you would see what I do. An empathetic, caring and thoughtful child (with a bit of a bossy streak) who is far from ugly, both on and under the surface.
She no longer wanted to go to school. She seemed to have lost her spark, her joie de vie, which is, in my opinion, a seriously despicable thing to do to a child. Knowing the root of the issue, thankfully, gave me the tools to help her work through it.
“What do you think? Do you think the things they are saying are true?”
“I’m not mean! And I don’t know why they say I’m ugly!” she states with indignation, “But I know I don’t like it.”
“If those girls told you that you had green hair, would you believe them?”
“No, that would be ridiculous.”
“So, why do you believe these girls when they tell you something that you know isn’t true?”
The solution was simple. My daughter’s distinctive blonde hair and pale green eyes stand out among a student population of brown eyes and black hair. A kind compliment was all it took from my daughter to boost a bit of lost confidence that was sabotaging a friendship.
With a selective eater, however, the attack may be similar, but the root of the issue is a different and far more dangerous animal. Prejudice is an insidiously invasive demon to conquer.
This demon is prevalent in feeding advice. Here it is again, in a recent ‘advice for parenting’ series on a well read Internet site, offering tips on how to get kids to eat their vegetables.
- Believe that you have the authority to decide what is for dinner and the conviction that your kids are not going to starve;
- when your child is really hungry, make sure the first thing he sees is a vegetable;
- use the just taste it approach (one bite rule). This is a great post on the pros and cons of the one bite rule.
Oooh, so close, and yet… not.
Feeding the prejudice is a firmly held belief that eating comes naturally and therefore, very picky (read selective) eating kids are simply headstrong and stubborn manipulative masterminds. The advice is based on the theory that if the parent properly asserts their authority, it’s easy to get those veggies into their (obviously) defiant child. Of course, he wants that aspargus! Who wouldn’t? That kid of yours is just playing you for a fool.
Face? Meet palm.
The truth is, unlike breathing, eating is a learned skill, one that is more difficult to master in the presence of autism, dysphagia, trauma, oral motor delays, GI issues and allergies. Along with swallowing, chewing, and lateral tongue movement, children also learn whether this eating business is a chore or a pleasure. Parents, baffled by a hungry child staring at a plate full of food, are encouraged by doctors, therapists and the coercive feeding advice that is prevalent online to treat this as willful, stubborn behaviour. It’s much more likely that if your child is excessively resistant to trying new foods, what you are dealing with is a high reactive temperament.
Four significant long-term longitudinal studies, from Harvard and University of Maryland all reached similar conclusions: that babies differ according to inborn temperament; that 15 to 20 percent of them will react strongly to novel people or situations; and that strongly reactive babies are more likely to grow up to be anxious. (Understanding the Anxious Mind)
Plopping a parent dictated meal before a child with a high reactive temperament is as good as announcing your intentions for war. There is nothing wrong with the parent deciding what’s for dinner, but that dinner better include something that the child is already comfortable eating if you want to keep the peace.
Selective eating children are not being stubborn. They are exhibiting signs of anxiety. They are afraid of being in a situation they cannot escape, i.e. required to eat something that will make them gag, vomit, choke or just taste really terrible.
Like a vegetable.
Offering a vegetable to a very hungry, selective eating child with a high reactive temperament is just begging for trouble.
On one side there is a hungry, anxious child facing off against a frustrated and misinformed parent. You can see where this is going, and the effects can extend well through adulthood.
“You’re being impossible / spoiled / immature.”
“You can’t be that hungry if you’re not willing to eat this.”
“You sit at that table until you eat this.”
“Stop putting on a show with that pretend gagging nonsense.”
Your child is learning that eating is really uncomfortable, both physically and emotionally. They are learning that they are different and incapable. Worse, they are learning this from their parents, the people they should be able to trust implicitly. As these children grow into older children and teens, they hear the same esteem crushing rhetoric, now tinged with added cruelty, from their peers. There is no escape, and unlike my daughter who had my support in her time of crisis, the selective eater learns to carefully guard their limited eating, certain that there is no one to turn to for help.
High reactive children are extremely sensitive to pressure tactics. This study of vegetable liking and consumption among Dutch children looked at high, medium and low reactive temperaments and whether offering a choice would increase vegetable consumption in 4-6 year old children. The results showed that denying choice had a significantly negative impact on the eating behaviour of high reactive children. These same children also enjoyed the eating experience much less than their low reactant peers, especially when choice was not an option.
The same study divided children of different temperaments into three separate scenarios: those who could choose their vegetable before the meal, those who could choose one of two vegetables at the meal, and no choice at all. Although both parents and children were most happy with being able to choose the vegetable prior to the meal, none of the choice conditions had any effect on encouraging children to like or consume more vegetables.
If you want your child to learn to like more vegetables, or any previously untried food for that matter, this notion that kids are just digging in their heels in headstrong hostility needs to end. Better yet, why not B.E.G.I.N.?
- Back off – take pressure off the table. Bribes, threats and rewards are all forms of pressure and only make an anxious child more anxious. The idea here is to make the food look inviting and appealing, not stressful and frightening.
- Eat together – children learn to trust new food by watching others enjoy it first.
- Give them space – let your child warm up to a new food at a pace that is comfortable for him, and without the attentive gaze of parents eager to witness that inaugural first taste.
- Include safe food – knowing that there is something on the table your child can eat helps reduce the stress of facing something they’ve never tried. Hunger will NOT motivate an anxious child to eat. Helping a child build a healthy relationship with food also helps that child build trust in their parents, and ultimately confidence in themselves.
- Never force a child to eat. Ever.
What a child eats should never be more important that how a parent feeds their family. Vegetables, for all their dietary benefits are just not something anyone can force a child to like or eat, especially a selective eater with a high reactive temperament. Trying to force a child, even with the best of intentions, to learn to like their veggies only erodes our child’s trust in us as parents and eventually their self worth as individuals. It certainly does nothing to help increase the number of foods deemed acceptable for eating.
Personally, I would gladly trade some rainbow on a plate to know that both my kids will grow up with healthy attitudes toward food and themselves. No amount of vegetables can convince me to extinguish their joie de vie. If a rainbow of vegetables is ever going to end up on either of my kids’ plates, it will be entirely their choice to put them there.
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For resources on how to feed your family without pressure, check out The Feeding Doctor’ Trust Model, Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility, and Mealtime Notions’ resources for feeding challenges, including children fed by supplemental tube feeding.
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