Are Picky Eaters Made or Born?
Spoon feeding your children till they’re six or seven? Turning on the TV to distract your child while feeding? Running after your child to take a bite while they’re playing around in the club?
These are all very common behaviors in our Egyptian culture. One of the requirements of being a good Egyptian mother is to feed your child well, till signs of plump cheeks and thigh creases appear. Grandmothers always nag their daughters or daughters in law if the child is not sort of chubby, and if one is blessed with a slim healthy child who is not underweight by medical standards but is malnourished by cultural standards, still people may label this mother as not attending to her child’s nutritional needs.
All of these factors exert pressure on the mother to continuously feed her child and nag him about food, even if he complains about being full.
On the other hand, there is also another group of parents, who had low birth weight babies and were advised by the doctors to feed them in order to reach their normal weight.
All previous pressures produce nearly the same outcome, which is a parent who is overanxious about feeding their child resulting in certain parental behaviors that make the child automatically and almost subconsciously resistant to food. Examples of such behaviors are:
– Oversized portions on the child’s plate and insisting the child finishes those huge portions.
– Constantly asking the child if they ate at nursery or school.
– Refusing to have the child eat by themselves in fear of spilling food or making a mess.
– Nervously nagging the child to eat.
– Responding with huge facial gestures or comments, when the child refuses to eat.
– Over pampering or bribing the child to eat.
– Threatening to punish the child if he doesn’t eat.
The child learns from the parents’ facial reactions and stressful behaviors that the food issue is a major area to control the parent and get whatever they need. It is not that the child is a manipulator by nature, but simply we, the parents, teach them unconsciously that this is the way to get what they need to get.
Let us take a look at how psychologist Erick Erickson’s psychosocial stages, can be applied to children’s eating skills development:
– Stage of trust versus mistrust: (Infants)
To ensure the child achieves trust at this age, the parent or caregiver is advised to feed the baby when hungry without delay and stop feeding when the baby shows they are full. The caregiver should set a comfortable, secure and tender tone while feeding the baby in its chair.
If the caregiver feeds the baby on a strict schedule not aligning with the baby’s needs, or the baby is robotically fed without tender embracing, there is a risk that this child will develop a sense of mistrust that will continue to grow with him and affect his behavior and relationships.
– Stage of Autonomy versus Shame and Doubt: (Toddlers)
At this stage, the child needs to prove to himself that he is autonomous and can do things on his own. Thus, they are encouraged to feed themselves, however messy it may be. If they refuse food, it is taken lightly but is tried again later. If the caregiver insists on feeding the child, interrupts feeding to wipe and clean the mess, or forces the child to eat all their food, there is a risk of developing a doubtful person who is insecure and ashamed of himself.
– Stage of Initiative versus Guilt: (Early childhood)
This stage is characterized by the child having a will to initiate, try and take risks.
The parent should present food to the child so he/she can serve themselves and decide how much they need to eat treating spills as normality not a disaster. When the child expresses being full, it should be respected. The opposite of the previous recommendations should be avoided; otherwise the child will develop a strong sense of guilt.
– Stage of Industry versus Inferiority: (Middle childhood)
At this age, children need to feel they are capable and can accomplish tasks and achieve missions. It is thus advisable to arrange the environment so that the child can make his own food. Cooking recipes for children are very productive tasks at this age. Children can even make menus and suggest schedules for meal times. All of this will deflect the child away from a sense of inferiority, which could occur, if the child at this age is offered preset meals and forced to eat everything that is served.
B.Link, L. (2013, February 10). 10 reasons why your kids are picky eaters. Retrieved from http://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2013/02/10-reasons-kids-picky-eaters.html
Fletcher, J., & Branen, L. (n.d.). Erick Erickson’s psychosocial stages, Applications for children’s eating skills development.
Is your child a pick eater? or problem feeder? (2012, December 7).
Sampson, S. (2014, January 15). Reforming a picky eater, Step one: Children Don’t control the family meal. The New York Times.
S. Park, J. (n.d.). Keeping kids healthy and fit. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/parents/special/article-nutrition-picky.html
Dr. Mona Youssri is a child and adolescent psychiatrist, family counselor and certified trainer accredited by Oxford Press. She has a Masters of Arts in International counseling from the American University in Cairo, is an affiliated International member of the American Psychological Association and a life time member of the International Honor Society in Psychology (PSI CHI). She is founder and owner of The Creative Learning Center, an early literacy based preschool with a unique child psychology based curriculum.