Are you emotionally invested in your child's eating? Yes! Of course you are. Because caring deeply about your child's health and well-being is at the heart of being a loving parent. Even more than this, we are programmed to be be highly motivated to nourish our children because it is essential to the very survival of mankind; if we didn't care enough to feed our kids, that would spell the end of the human race.
So emotional investment in your child's eating is a normal, healthy part of being a caring parent. But when we care too much, problems arise.
What does over-investment look like?
For some parents, especially when their have been medical issues, early feeding struggles or a failure to thrive in early childhood, what your child eats means everything. Not only is it incredibly important to you, it also becomes tangled up in your sense of self. If your child eats well at a particular meal, you may feel proud and even elated. If they refuse food, you may feel crushed and experience a profound sense of failure.
In other words, your child's eating has become mixed up in your feelings about yourself. This goes deep - it is connected to your view of yourself as a parent, especially for women. I am a huge advocate of appreciating the role that fathers play in feeding children, but in my experience, this enmeshment (of self-image, self-esteem and your child's eating) is something that mothers are especially prone to.
Given than eating is something that children do several times a day, this is a big deal. If your self image and sense of self worth is tied in with your children's eating, the stress and heartache that this will entail - day in, day out - is immense.
So being over-invested in your child's eating is tough on you, but what about how it impacts your child? If you are anxious about how and what they eat, they will pick up on this and it will make them anxious too. Equally, when you have strong feelings about your child rejecting food that you have offered, this can easily morph into a controlling approach to feeding; something that researchers know is damaging to a child's relationship with food.
If you can answer 'yes' to all of these questions, you may be over-invested:
1. Do you ever feel sad or angry when your child rejects food you have prepared for them?
2. Do you experience intense happiness when your child accepts a food that you had thought they may not like?
3. Do you ever engage in 'negative self-talk' in relation to your child's eating, entertaining ideas like 'it's my fault', 'I've failed' or 'I'm a bad mother'?
If your child is a very picky eater, of course you will feel a level of anxiety about their eating, that's completely natural. The first thing to do is get their weight and growth checked and establish whether you actually do have cause for concern. Equally, if your child isn't accessing a varied diet, it is totally rational to want to address this. Over-investment is not about simply caring deeply about your child's eating, it's about connecting it (consciously or subconsciously) to who you are as a parent.
Shifting your mindset
If you can relate to the thoughts, feelings and behaviours that I am describing, take something positive from that; in order to work towards a new mindset, recognising and acknowledging that there is a problem is the first step. Just by reading this and asking yourself difficult questions, you have made a change.
Disentangling your sense of self from your child's eating can be long process (often involving some professional support) but I'd like to share a couple of tips to help you on your journey:
1. - Try keeping a journal for a week, where you record some key aspects of mealtimes and then at the end of the week, look back at your reactions, your child's reactions, the interplay between them and how they are affected by other factors, like your stress and tiredness levels.
This will give you some important insights and help you identify what makes you more vulnerable to an unhelpful mindset.
2 - Remember that children reject food for many reasons. Perhaps they struggle with sensory processing, perhaps they are naturally cautious and prone to anxiety. Genes have a large part to play. No parent can take 100% of the responsibility for how their child eats any more than they can take responsibility for their child's sporting talent (or lack of).
3 - If this really resonates with you but feels a bit too big to tackle along - ask for help! Chat to a partner or trusted friend. Seek therapy if you feel this is a really big deal for you. It's easier to ignore psychologically difficult things, and simply carry on as you are. But if you can find the strength to tackle your challenging feelings, this will pay dividends in the long term.