This post is not directly about picky eating BUT it will be relevant to you if your child finds eating hard. The longer I have worked in the world of feeding, the more I have come to learn that supporting children in ways that don’t seem immediately to do with their eating can be an essential piece of the puzzle. More than that, skills they learn away from the table can have a knock-on positive impact on how they relate to food.
This applies to relaxation - I love to share meditation and relaxation resources with parents, as well as teaching breathing and mindfulness exercises. This also applies to resilience-building; in my online course for parents of anxious eaters, I devote an entire lesson to this. Relaxation and resilience are important for the families I work with because many very picky eaters (who I often describe as ‘food-anxious’) need help with managing their anxiety. This is especially true where eating issues are underpinned by a sensitive or cautious temperament.
If children can learn how to relax and use their breath to help them handle tricky feelings, they can apply these techniques whenever they feel the need, including at mealtimes. If they can learn how to tackle challenges that may seem intimidating at first (climbing up the big slide… going to the dentist…) this will empower them to begin to experiment when it comes to eating.
Giving children an emotional tool-kit builds confidence and reduces dependence. Of course, we need to be there for them - cheering them on, teaching them and being their advocate - but ultimately, we want them to have the skills to manage their own emotions and the confidence to handle new situations, as they grow.
Now, let’s think for a minute about how we naturally respond to a child in emotional distress: Taking an example from my family, my youngest daughter (I have three!) is five years old and was very worried because she couldn’t find her spelling book to take into school. She couldn’t find it because we are in the middle of a lot of building work and quite frankly, my house is chaos. I knew it was my fault she couldn’t find it (turns out I had accidentally boxed it up with all my stationary) and my urge was to reassure her… to tell her it would all be okay, I would handle it and speak to her teacher… that she should stop worrying and leave it to me.
While we still have the power to, the instinct to reassure is HUGE (trust me, this is finite... I am no longer able to wave my magic mummy wand and make everything okay for my eldest almost-teen, when she has a problem). We hate to see our kids upset, and often our adult insight provides us with an obvious answer to whatever the situation may be. So why not just fix it and tell them not to worry?
To illustrate why I don’t recommend reassurance, I’ll tell you how I handled the lost spelling book. First, I tried to validate my daughter’s feelings. I wanted to say “don’t worry - it will be fine!” but that would have missed how she felt. To me, it was a small issue and I knew her teacher was a reasonable human being who would totally understand. To my little girl, though, it was a genuine worry that she didn’t know how to cope with.
So I simple reflected her feelings back to her. No judgment, no interpretation. Most of all, no solutions! I said: “You’re really worried about losing your book. You really wish you had it to take in for today’s spelling test. It’s important to you to have all your things for school.”
Reflecting like this does a few things. It makes the child feel heard rather than having their worry dismissed. It gives them some words for their feelings which helps them articulate emotions in the future. It tells them we take their feelings seriously and it gives them a chance to correct us. Perhaps if I had misread my daughter a little, she might have corrected me and told me that her worry was actually not being allowed to take the spelling test, thus giving me a more accurate grasp of what was going on for her. See how different this is from telling children that they don’t need to be feeling whatever they are feeling?
Let’s unpack “don’t worry” for a moment - it’s actually a way of telling a person to stop having their current feeling. I don’t know about you, but has being told to stop feeling a certain way ever actually worked? It hasn’t for me. And what about “don’t be silly!”. Even said with affection, it still misses the child’s experience. What is silly to us can be so big for them.
After reflecting a child’s feeling back, we need to help them come up with a solution. Instead of telling them how to proceed (even when the solution is crystal clear) I recommend working the problem through with them. With toddlers, you can do this for them, going through the different ways you could tackle a problem.
Let’s imagine they have spilt their cup of milk and they are upset - you could say “we could leave it for Daddy to clear up when he gets home” / “we could mop it up together” / “we could leave it there for a spider to swim in” . Then you could explore the consequences of each path… “if we leave it there, what might happen? Might we slip on it? Might it go smelly?” For older children, you can guide them through thinking up possible courses of action and considering the possible consequences of each, rather than making all the suggestions yourself.
I’m sure you’re wondering what happened with my daughter’s spelling book. Well, in fact I woke up with a jolt at 4am on the day of her spelling test, remembering where I had packed it away, so all was well. But she had come up with a plan where she would go and talk to her teacher with me there, so that if she couldn’t explain properly why she didn’t have her book, I could help her. We had chatted about what we knew about the teacher and decided she was kind and fair and would understand.
Next time you feel the urge to reassure, give my four step process a try:
- REFLECT THE FEELING BACK
- BRAINSTORM POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS
- EXPLORE THE CONSEQUENCES
- COME UP WITH A PLAN
Rather than telling children not to worry and solving things for them, validating their feelings and involving them in the process of finding a solution will give them skills they can use again and again, as they grow in confidence and independence.
Returning again to picky eating - a child who knows they are able to tackle challenges; a child who is learning to articulate how they feel and take a problem-solving approach to difficult situations, is much more likely to begin to venture out of their comfort zone when it comes to food.