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Inside the Mind of a Problem Eater

It’s hard to understand why otherwise healthy, “typically developing” kids, are refusing to eat all but a few foods. It is even more difficult to understand why problem eaters continually eliminate foods from their small list of acceptable foods. Having spent most of my adult life helping these kids and their families, I can tell you that problem eating leaves parents feeling perplexed and exhausted. It also takes a toll on the kids. Being a picky, problem, or resistant eater is not fun. So, why is it that these kids remain picky? What is it that makes a kid eat only a few different kinds of food that are usually from the same food group? What is going on inside their minds? To understand that, you first need to understand how kids develop problem eating.

Most often the problem eating began to develop when the child was a baby, or toddler. That is the time when most parents feel like they are fully responsible for their child’s nutrition. And it is where problems can typically be traced back to. Parents of problem eaters always tell me about the different things they have done to get their kids to eat. They also tell me about the numerous battles that were fought. They tell me that they felt like there were some successes, until they realized they were further behind than they were when they started.

When teens come in for initial feeding consultations, I ask them to list the foods that they like, the foods they have some interest in trying, and the foods they will never eat. Without fail, the list of foods that they “will never eat” will contain mostly food items that their parents have repeatedly forced them to eat. So these food refusals come with lots of baggage and battle scars. While the battles must end in order to help these kids, resolving the problem is very complicated and it’s going to be a long road to change.

Change for problem eaters is one of the most difficult kinds of change there is. A huge part of this difficulty involves the concept of self-identity. They identify themselves as “picky eaters”. This is the role they play in their family, and in their peer group. They are the ones who don’t eat most foods. They are the ones who have been the focus of mealtimes for years. They are the ones who often overhear their parents talking about, and even fighting about, their eating. With each event the identity of being a “picky eater” gets stronger and stronger.

If you have ever had a phobia, this may make some sense. When you are in a situation involving your phobia it’s likely that all the attention is on you. Now imagine this is happening 3x a day, every day. When that happens, it becomes who you are. Changing who you are, and who you are expected to be, in any situation is extremely difficult.

When I explain this to parents, they usually have an “ah-ha” moment. They realize that most of what they have been doing has actually been making the problem worse. They realize that the battles, the games, the praise, and all of the little tricks they used have put the focus on their child’s eating and reinforced his identity of being a picky eater.

This is why I always require that the initial stages of feeding therapy take place in my office with no family members present. This gives the child a chance to reinvent himself (or herself), and be anyone he wants to be.

In our first meetings, parents are often shocked when their “resistant eater” eats many of the foods that they have been trying to convince the child to eat for years. Now don’t get me wrong— that does not mean that the problem is fixed. It just means that the child was able to let go of his role as “picky eater” while he was with me. It takes time to go from eating in my office, to eating in his everyday life.

If you are a parent of a problem eater, please realize that this problem is a lot broader than what it appears to be on the surface. Yes, it does seem to center around your child. However, everyone who has contact with your child’s eating plays a role in the perpetuation, or the resolution of the problem.

Aside from the problem eater being able to recreate his own identity, each member of the family must recreate theirs. Old patterns and bad habits must be broken, and new roles must be taken on. If there is one parent, or even grandparent, who continues to use “their way” then positive change will likely not happen. That is why it is important to get everyone on board, and make sure they are doing the right things.

The thoughts inside the mind of a problem eater are complicated. They are not just about food preferences. While it may start out that way, being a “picky eater” eventually becomes a big piece of who these kids are. It becomes how they see themselves, and how others see them. Understanding that, and how to deal with it, is crucial to successful treatment.

About the author: Isa Marrs is a board-certified speech-language pathologist who specializes in articulation, pragmatic language and feeding disorders in children. She is an expert in the field who is frequently sought after by institutions and therapists to provide training for working with these and other disorders. Isa also served as a guest expert on Nickelodeon’s ParentsConnect.com, and has been quoted by numerous top media such as Disney’s BabyZone.com, LoveToKnow.com, and Univision. She can be reached at 914.488.5282