Pick Up Special Time With Your Picky Eater

Dear Hand in Hand,

My son is the pickiest eater I have ever met. Everything has to be completely unblemished. Food cannot have touched anything else which might discolour it. And on top of this, he eats almost only white food. I don’t want to force food on to him, or make eating a traumatic experience, but I would like to get more nutrients in him than pasta and bagels. Is this normal? Or is there perhaps a psychological issue underlying there?
Avoidant Eater

Dear Avoidant,

In my experience, fears that have attached to certain foods, or to the look and smell of certain foods, are not necessarily related to foods. The symptom of the fear–the strong aversion to certain foods–is so riveting and concerning that the aversion gets all of the parent’s attention and worry, while the underlying fear goes untouched, so the aversion doesn’t move. You can’t pour honey on a fear, or dress it up, or talk a child out of it. A fear is a feeling, and no logic or trick can pry a feeling out of a child.

What can get a feeling moving so that the child has some room to change his behavior and be open to new things is this strategy:

First, give him Special Time often. Time, spent with the parent offering closeness and attention, to do just what he wants to do. Special Time is limited by a timer that ticks until his Special Time is over. The parent doesn’t advise, doesn’t teach, doesn’t say what will be played or how it will be played. The parent follows the child’s lead, and offers warmth and extra eye contact during the Special Time. Once a day would be great.

What Special Time does is to “warm up” the child’s sense of support and closeness to his parent. If he’s going to face some fears and come through that more confidently, he needs the direct, warm attention of his parent. Be delighted. And when it’s over, give him a big hug and tell him when the next time will be.

Often, at the end of Special Time, a child will find a way to be upset. Maybe he won’t want Special Time to end. Maybe he only wants to sit in THIS chair, not THAT chair for dinner. Maybe one food touched another food, and this upsets him. Allow the upset. When children cry and tantrum, they are doing something highly worthwhile! It’s hard to comprehend because we’ve been told otherwise for so many years, but crying and tantrums are a release valve for fear and upset! Move close, and do what we call Staylistening. Stay, listen, don’t try to argue or be reasonable. The unreasonable feelings are pouring out. This is healthy. This will help him, if you can pour in your caring and your support as he cries. You don’t have to say much. It will help him immensely if you can show that you don’t think the sky will fall because Special Time is over, or because someone else sat in THIS chair that he wants, or because the peas touched his potatoes.

There’s more about all this in an article that outlines this intervention more fully: here is Getting Beyond “Yuck!” with your Picky Eater, Part 1 and Part 2, and below. You can also get a more in depth look at Special Time and Staylistening in our Listening to Children series.

One last idea: in these articles, I describe a game that works great with picky eaters. You pretend, with great flourish, to be a picky eater. You examine your food, make faces and noises, hold it up and drop it back on your plate, and go “Eeeewwwww!” with a twinkle in your eye. The laughter that ensues will also help him release some of that fear and aversion…it’s a process, but it works!

Have an interesting time with these ideas! Let us know how it goes.

Juli Idleman

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