Why are children picky? This question comes up over and over again. As parents, we want to understand our children’s problems; we have a fundamental need for an explanation.
The answer to this question is that there isn’t a simple answer. The newspapers sometimes talk about ‘bad parenting’ being to blame; some researchers point to evolutionary reasons for children hitting a picky phase; equally, rejecting foods can coincide with many of the normal aspects of child development like boundary testing and looking for autonomy.
Genes also come into the equation, and picky eating can be linked to many other challenges, like ASD and sensory processing problems. Picky eating is, as the scientists say ‘multifactorial’: Children gravitate towards a limited diet for many, many reasons and sometimes, those reasons overlap and interconnect. Whoever said children were simple?
In this post, I’d like to talk about a cause of picky eating that doesn’t get mentioned much; temperament. Some children can be picky because… they are just kind of wired to be sensitive or cautious.
What is temperament?
Temperament is different from personality, in that it is innate. We are born with certain temperamental traits, like our need for order versus being flexible and adaptable, or our preference for solitude versus crowds. Personality, on the other hand, is the interplay between our temperament and our environment and life experiences.
For example, how we are brought up affects our personalities, as does what happens to us along the way. A lovely metaphor I once heard used to describe the distinction between temperament and personality is that if temperament is the canvas, personality is the paint.
The cautious child
My youngest daughter is fearless - she likes to climb trees, to meet new people, to try new things. She throws herself headlong into novel experiences, without a second thought (Sometimes with disastrous results, but that’s another story…).
This is her bold temperament in action. Sure, I’ve tried to bring her up to be confident, but I can’t take the credit for her attitude to life any more than I can claim that her older sister’s natural caution and ‘sensible head’ is all my doing.
A child with a cautious temperament is wary of new things and new people. They like to take stock of a situation before leaping in. They prefer the familiar and are ‘slow to warm up’. This is neither good nor bad - it’s who they are. And there are plenty of advantages to looking before you leap, as I keep trying to tell my daughter!
However, for cautious children, food can often be a real challenge. Unfamiliarity in terms of what we eat, provides a real assault to the senses. They have to contend with unfamiliar smells, unfamiliar visual appearances, unfamiliar tastes and strange textures too. Cautious children often cling on to what they know, and so prefer to eat foods that are within their comfort zone. Once this pattern of being fearful of new or disliked foods kicks in, they can quickly form a habit whereby they become very rigid in their eating and only accept a limited range of foods.
The sensitive child
Caution and sensitivity often go hand in hand. Sensitivity is a temperamental trait that has been researched fairly extensively. Dr Elaine Aron wrote about her influential research in this area in her popular book, The Highly Sensitive Person: how to thrive when the world overwhelms you. She describes how some people (about 20% of the population) have a more sensitive than average nervous system, and are more affected by sensory stimulation, among other things.
While some children have fairly severe challenges when it comes to successfully integrating sense data, others may simply be highly sensitive by nature, experiencing the smell, texture, taste and sight of foods more intensely than most people. Equally, some researchers have labelled a small group of the population ‘supertasters’ (a term originated by Dr Linda Bartoshuk at the University of Florida) - individuals with extra powerful taste receptors who experience food in a very extreme way.
The emotional child
I have written elsewhere about how an emotional temperament (sometimes called 'difficultness') has also been linked with picky eating. How we eat and who we are are intrinsically linked, and understanding eating issues in the context of temperament and personality can be incredibly helpful.