ARFID and Supportive Parenting: What Your Teen Needs From You

The following is a letter from a teenager whose parents have been insisting that she tries new foods – an experience she describes as unbearable and always ends in tears. With permission, I am sharing this letter so that we as parents can better understand our selective eating children. If you’re a teen, it is hoped that this letter will help your parents better understand how they can provide the support you need.

teen-and-mom

Dear Mom and Dad:

I know you love me and want what you believe is best for my health and my future. I thank you for that. I want you to know that I want that too. I know my eating worries you, and probably keeps you awake at night fearing for my future health and happiness. Neither you, nor I have any control over what the future will bring. What scares me most is that I will lose your love over the food I cannot eat.

I understand that all the advice and attempts to get me to try new foods is for my own good, however I would appreciate it if you could just accept me the way I am. I know you’re trying to help, but trying to make me eat differently than I am able to is making it harder for me to eat the way you would like me to. I am trying- I really am!! Trying different foods would be so much easier if I knew I didn’t have to earn your love with the food I chew and swallow.

I have searched for information and discovered there are many others who have strong likes and dislikes for food, and there are professionals who specialize in this pattern of eating. It’s called ARFID. Here is some information about it:
Defining Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)
Change Is Never Easy, but It Is Possible: Reflections on Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder Two Years After Its Introduction in the DSM-5
What Is ARFID?

What I need to be successful with eating is your acceptance and your support. Just accept my eating as it is and stop trying to change me. I am more hesitant to try new foods when others insist. Asking me to try food makes me more anxious about eating that food, and increases the likelihood that I will not like the taste. However, if the willingness to try a new food comes from myself, I am better able to approach that food calmly, and with interest.

I know you’re only trying to help me, and believe that everything you have done, and continue to do, is done with good intentions. I have included some information for you, so you can help me in a way that builds my confidence around food. When every mealtime feels like a conversation that discusses my eating habits, it makes me want to run from the table! I am already very self-conscious about my eating and wish that I could eat like everyone else. How I wish that social eating events were gatherings I could enjoy instead of worrying about the potential to turn into my biggest nightmare.

Mastering Family Meals
Addressing super – picky – finicky eating
Helping Your Child With Extreme Picky Eating
Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family

I hope we can sit down together with this information and have a discussion. I would really like to have a better relationship with food, and I believe that I can with your support. At the moment, I feel like all I can do is disappoint you when I eat. Those times when you have allowed me to eat what I was able to and defended me from the negative comments of others mean the world to me. Thank you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. I remember those times you made me feel normal more than I remember the times your worries made me feel bad about myself. I hope I can count on your support because I know that I can do anything when you believe in me.

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13 responses to “ARFID and Supportive Parenting: What Your Teen Needs From You

  1. THANK YOU! I have just found your blog and in the 30 seconds it took me to scan the first post I was 95% certain my 10yo son has ARFID. He has lived on little other than breakfast cereal (one brand) and peanut-butter sandwiches for most of his life. He continues to grow and we try not to freak out and just go with it, but I don’t know whether we should be seeking therapy or just letting him take it at his own pace. His diet really has barely expanded since he was 3. (Though just this summer he discovered that curly fries taste as good as straight ones. That was quite a breakthrough.)

  2. I just read the letter and I sounds like my daughter could have written it. My issue with it and the situation my daughter is in is that left to her own to deal with the food issues she will lie and say that she tried something when I know that she hasn’t. She worked with a doctor on trying new foods but would only do so at the visits. When given a assignment to work on a food at home it never happened. So how can I just sit by and not do anything. I really need a support group.

    • From the perspective of the average teen, your daughter wants you to be proud of her – as she is – but there’s this condition that she must eat certain foods.

      “Gosh,” she says, “I wish I could, but I can’t … Not right now. But if I don’t, I’ll be a disappointment to my parents.” She lies because, given the impossible choice between eating something she can’t and lying that she tried something new, lying at least has the potential to earn your approval.

      I’m a parent, just like you, and Lord knows we parent our kids with best of intentions. Eating well is a noble goal – and what parent wouldn’t want their child to enjoy a balanced diet? Good intentions have paved the way Hell since Hades was a boy… (probably avoiding the broccoli too.) When our kids are saying “give me space”, they don’t mean throw our arms up in defeat and do nothing. There is a way to support our kids with eating without insisting they try new food on demand. If your daughter is anything like the teen who wrote that letter, she doesn’t know how to tell you how much she wants to help you learn how to help her. You can get in touch through the contact form or at mealtimehostage [at] gmail [dot] com

    • You hit it on the head. There are defiantly approval and control issues at play. My fear is that her next step is hopitalization. She has sustained her weight for the past 13 months on Ensure, chocolate ice cream ( only Turkey Hill Farm brand) and Skippy peanut butter balls, nothing else. I feel like an awful mother that this is all she eats. My husband works second shift and my two sons are older and live on their own so meal times don’t happen at the table. My daughter also work 4 days during the week and says she has no time to try new foods. We have been through the medical route to determine that it is not that she can’t eat it’s anxiety, PTSD and result of bullying. We even tried hypnotherapy and the Dr said she was not ready to get help. Now were do we go. Thanks for letting me unload I feel like I’m going to explode.

    • You hit it on the head. There are defiantly approval and control issues at play. My fear is that her next step is hopitalization. She has sustained her weight for the past 13 months on Ensure, chocolate ice cream ( only Turkey Hill Farm brand) and Skippy peanut butter balls, nothing else. I feel like an awful mother that this is all she eats. My husband works second shift and my two sons are older and live on their own so meal times don’t happen at the table. My daughter also work 4 days during the week and says she has no time to try new foods. We have been through the medical route to determine that it is not that she can’t eat it’s anxiety, PTSD and result of bullying. We even tried hypnotherapy and the Dr said she was not ready to get help. Now were do we go. Thanks for letting me unload I feel like I’m going to explode.

  3. Thank you for replying everyone. This is such a difficult road. So hard to know what the right thing is. Often I feel I should leave him to his own devices… Let him sort it through on his own. My biggest fear is that I am doing something very bad to his relationship with food. I love him without limit or exception. I do my best to let him know that, no matter what he eats or doesn’t, he is a good boy with a family that loves him.

    Certainly I worry about his future health problems, but of more relevance is that my son is about to start school… On an all-carb diet I worry about his energy levels and constant sugar highs and lows. He’s very thin and yet growing tall… Starting to slip on the growth chart. So I ask you… What am I to do? Leave him be? And what of the anxiety? Do I get him a therapist?

  4. Been thinking about this letter all day. I have a 5 year old whom I assume would be diagnosed with ARFID. Isn’t it our job as parents to do what is best for our children even if it is not popular with them? Of course providing love to them as they learn to try new foods is paramount to having a well-adjusted child. But giving up the battle and “accept [your child’s] eating as it is” ?! I wonder if this teen would feel the same at 30 years old, after having to navigate college, dating and business meals. I’d be willing to bet he/she will have a different point of view… Maybe even wish his/her parents tried even harder. Perhaps when a medical diagnosis like diabetes arises and preferred foods are no longer safe for him/her, that would be a game changer.
    Parents have to make hard decisions to do what is right for their children sometimes. Their children’s health and well-being should come before their own popularity with their kids.
    This letter has honestly laid yet another guilt trip on parents who likely (wrongfully) blame themselves for their child’s eating struggles in the first place. Seems irresponsible to put it out there in this forum. Just my opinion… Felt I needed to get it out.

    • There’s something to be distinguished between “giving up” and “accept me as I am.” A beginning needs a starting place. This teen, (and the many who write to me) want to learn to like new foods, but their parents’ insistence that they eat certain foods before developing the skills necessary to accept those foods is actually hindering their progress.

      What this teen is asking for is understanding. Digging in one’s heels and saying “my way or bust lest you get diabetes in your 30s” is exactly the attitude this letter is attempting to change. Both parent and child want the same thing. It’s more likely both sides win by working at that goal together instead of fighting each another with green leafy things.

    • I hear you. I have never accepted the idea that it’s “my way or bust.” I recognize the physiological events in my son’s life that have created this beast. I understand and validate his fears. I have tried a sensory approach as well as a behavioral one. The latter being the only one that produced any progress.

      I’m curious about “the skills necessary” to accept those foods…. As you see it. Genuinely I’d love to hear your perspective. I struggle constantly with those that say my son will “grow out of it” when I whole heartedly don’t think he will… Nor am I willing to gamble his health on it.

    • I don’t buy into the “grow out of it” or “get hungry eventually” nonsense either, not without understanding how a child “grew into” such a strong resistance to eating. How that may have happened is nobody’s fault- parents do their best with the tools they have. Kids aren’t much different.

      As for “the skills necessary”, everyone has a unique relationship with food. A very cautious eater will (and often without interference) eventually explore around what they already know – different varieties of familiar foods. As the range of familiar widens, so does the list of acceptable things to eat. Trying crackers because bread tastes good, or crackers because chips are okay is a small step compared to trying to nudge a child who is stuck on a specific brand of crackers to try a bite of asparagus. The skills to accept the taste and texture of asparagus just aren’t there if what’s considered safe is limited to very specific criteria. Food acceptance is a process… a very slow, and long process. My selective eater has gone from the limits of bread and crackers into the very exciting realm of nuts and vegetables. We’re just on the edge of “anything is possible.” He did this because I offered him opportunity and freedom to explore food on his terms.

      Like you, I’m not willing to gamble with my kids’ health. I personally enjoy my veggies and I am starting to see glimmers that one day, my son will too. I never want him to eat healthy things he doesn’t like because someone says “should.” I want him to eat because he enjoys delicious food that also happen to be good for him. We would never have gotten here by insisting he eat food he wasn’t ready for. Some children will tolerate a little push, mine need more space and time to figure this eating thing out. I can’t really expect them to take bigger strides than their legs will stretch, but I can be grateful that they want to do the best they are able to. He’s 10 – we the have the luxury of time to be patient.

    • I am a 46 year old woman who doesn’t eat vegetables. Can’t stand them, they taste like dirt to me. I have struggled with this my whole life. Try dieting when you can’t eat a salad. Knowing that your digestive issues are worsened by the lack of roughage in your diet. Wondering if your various health issues are actually a vitamin deficiency. It’s certainly not easy.

      But let me tell you how I got here. My mother tells me that I was eating every sort of baby food, veggies included. When it came time to transition to solid foods, she thinks I struggled with texture. If I’d been left to myself to figure things out, I’d have likely gotten to a place where I don’t like a small number of things, but generally would eat anything. Instead, my father turned it into a power struggle. He physically force fed me vegetables, or I was threatened with physical punishment if I didn’t eat them, even if I’d just thrown up my food because I’d choked it down or maybe from the stress. I’ve spent hours at the kitchen bar staring at a cold plate of disgusting food because he’d said I wasn’t going to bed without eating it. I’ve been served that same disgusting food from the refrigerator in the morning because my mother intervened around 11pm and sent me to bed.

      Granted, this was extreme behaviour, and people can say that it is certainly the cause of my food issues. Camille, you’re obviously a loving parent and would probably not support the lengths my father went to. But I can also tell you that **any** level of coercion would have generated similar, if not as severe, effects with me. Eating disorders arise because it’s the ONE THING a child can control.

      I vowed never to get into a “food fight” with my daughter. She went through some pretty picky times, but the pediatrician assured me she would over time get the nutrients she needed, and we watched her growth which was always at the top of the curve. The only restriction I placed on her was at a certain point – she was about 6 – I said she had to try the food the rest of the family ate, or she didn’t get her dessert. There weren’t rules about how big of a bite, or how many bites, just to try it. No fights, no arguments, no pressure. My child is now 18 and she has a couple of foods she doesn’t like, but will eat just about anything and loves salad.

      Even now, I have well-meaning friends and family who gently rib me about my picky eating and tell me I just need to get over it. I feel horrible when people who love me judge me. I know I need to make changes in my eating, but pressure from people who love me just stresses me out. I finally asked my husband, based on articles linked here to the Fat Nutritionist (which were wonderful) to stop discussing my food choices with me. He does most of the cooking, and I am not asking for accommodations, just don’t comment if I only take a bite, or don’t take any. It’s already starting to relieve my stress about my food.

      As a child, and later as an adult, a person knows that the way they eat isn’t “normal”. They know to be healthy they need to eat differently. They don’t need the stress of having the people they love criticizing and hounding them about it, or penalizing them for their food choices. Teach children about nutrition, and how to build a healthy plate, make sure you’re *offering* plenty of variety and healthy foods, and then leave it alone. They’ll come to terms with it the best they can, trust me.

  5. Wow. Thank you so much for sharing your personal thoughts. Just tonight we were working with my 6yr old sweetest little girl on taking that first ‘no thank you bite’. Alas, she declined and even went as far to say ‘please still love me, if I don’t want to try it’. This broke my heart then and a light went on saying it’s ok if she really doesen’t care to try new foods. This letter just sealed the experience up in a neat package with a beautiful bow, and reinforced to me that she will eat and does eat with her own guidelines. Everything will be ok. This heartfelt letter from this beautiful person has lifted a huge weight for me. I can not thank you enough for sharing 🙂

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