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Is There More to Your Child's Picky Eating?

Picky eating can be a sign of something more serious. If your child is severely picky in her eating habits, she may be signaling to you that there is a psychological problem that needs to be addressed.
08/17/2015 11:53am ET | Updated August 17, 2016
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Portrait of a cute young boy looking naughty while holding a piece of broccoli on his fork

Remember when you were a child and you gagged at the sight of the sliminess of a soft-boiled egg, or pushed away from that shaky Jello? This is normal picky eating, and nothing to worry about; it is just the kind of picky eating we have all experienced at one time or another. On the other hand, picky eating can be a sign of something more serious. If your child is severely picky in her eating habits, she may be signaling to you that there is a psychological problem that needs to be addressed.

Picky Eating Red Flags

Children who consistently turn away from typical foods such as fruits, vegetables, and proteins, may be oversensitive in their experience of smell and sight. They also may be displaying psychological issues, such as anxiety, ADD, ADHD, depression, obsessive compulsion, or personality disorder, and a portal into your picky eater's world is her social interaction with her peers. For example: is she socially shy? Does she isolate herself from others? Does she demonstrate anxiety around groups of children? These are all red flags to look for when identifying a picky eater with a problem.

If this is your child, you should first speak to your pediatrician, and if necessary, allow him to recommend a mental health professional. In the meantime, be sure your child maintains a healthy weight and growth pattern, and pay attention to ways in which you can support your child socially. Interestingly enough, many severely selective eaters have parents who are themselves battling mental health issues, such as eating disorders, substance abuse, depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsion. There may, in fact, be a link to food aversion and these other areas of mental health. Further, there can also be an issue with sensory processing, and your highly picky eater may just be too sensitive to internal and external stimulation, such as smells, sight and texture.

How To Help Your Picky Eater

So what can you do to help your picky eater? To begin with, remain calm and remember that your child takes her cue from you. Because anxiety is a part of picky eating, it is important not to pressure your child, or stress her over eating... for, in all emotional issues, stress can be a huge component. In some cases, highly selective eaters outgrow much of their aversion and enhance their food repertoire as they grow older.

As a savvy parent, it is necessary to teach your child stress reduction techniques, such as meditation, creative visualization, and breathing strategies to lower anxiety and enhance a state of peacefulness around meal time. Next, communication with your child using my empathic process will invest your child in the process of her eating likes and dislikes, while also reasserting her sense of control. If your child is dealing with an obsessive compulsive issue, anxiety, depression, ADD, and so on, then control becomes an important tool in helping her self-manage her eating problem. Positive adjustments can occur over time if you allow your child a safe space in which to be seen, heard, and understood. Active listening during the empathic process will allow both you and your child to come up with a variety of foods that your child finds acceptable, and that you find to be healthy.

In the final analysis, the good news is: if your child is an extremely selective eater, she may be telling you that there are other problems afoot, which gives you a wonderful opportunity to have a head start supporting your child, whether through professional intervention or greater communication at home. This is a win-win situation. It's a great opportunity for you to build a strong and healthy relationship and become a lifelong ally to your child.